Hey everyone, today we are going to talk about one of the more perplexing elements of ASOIAF, and that would be zombies. We’re to talk about a lot of things, like green men and the last hero and Coldhands and Jon Snow, but they will all be related to zombies. Resurrected people. The walking.. well you know. ASOIAF has got some serious zombie-creep going on, and I am pretty sure I know why. That is the point of this episode – to explain why exactly it is that George just can’t let sleeping corpses lie. It’s not only interesting for its own sake, it’s actually quite central to the puzzle of defeating the Others and dealing with the Long Night. This will be a bit of an unusual essay in that you don’t need to have read or listened to any Mythical Astronomy to understand what we will be talking about today. I may occasionally mention ideas we’ve discussed elsewhere, but for the most part, this essay will not be based on any previous theories. As is my general policy, we will be “spoilers all books,” but we will not discuss any TWOW sample chapters, nor anything from the TV show after seasons 5, which is the point where the show passed the books on most plotlines.
So, zombies. There are some transformed beings out there who blur the lines between life and death, but what we are going to talk about today are zombies. The reanimated dead. Human beings, brought back from death. We have seen three distinct varieties of them: icy undead, fire undead, and whatever you call what Qyburn did with Gregor’s corpse.
The first are the wights raised by the Others, which we will refer to as cold wights or icy undead. They rise with eyes like cold burning blue stars and are swathed in cold in every sense of the word – their flesh is frozen, and they make the air colder in their immediate vicinity, just as the Others do. They appear to have only the vaguest of remnants of memory and no free will whatsoever. They are zombies in the classic sense – they represent corpses reanimated with some kind of necromancy. I think it is safe to say they are reanimated by what we would call “ice magic,” although that’s a loose term by necessity, because we do not understand what if any delineations there are between what seem like different types of magic.
Coldhands is a bit of an unusual case, and I’ll offer my explanation for his current state in a moment, but for the most part, he’s also in the category of icy undead. He has important differences between himself and the cold wights such as speech, apparent free will and no blue star eyes, but in terms of physiology, he appears to be the similar to the cold wights – a dead and frozen corpse with no vital processes. We’ll talk more about Coldhands in a minute.
The second example would be, for lack of a better term, fire undead people, such as Lord Beric Dondarrion and Lady Stoneheart, formerly Catelyn Stark. Their indisputably dead bodies are resurrected by “the fiery kiss,” a R’hllorist tradition which up until recently was not known for reanimating corpses. Thoros, a red priest, resurrected Beric six different times, and when Beric gave Catelyn the same fiery kiss, Thoros says in AFFC that “the flame of life passed from him to her.” Beric has the trademark black blood of someone transformed by fire magic (regular listeners and readers of mythical Astronomy will know what I am talking about), and his own blood is capable of lighting his sword on fire. Again I think it is safe to say that it is the magic we associate with fire and R’hllor which has reanimated Beric and Catelyn. We can speculate as to why this ritual suddenly started resurrecting people and if that might have had something to do with the weirwoods that grow in the Riverlands, but nevertheless, it is fire magic and a fire sorcerer who is making these particular undead people. That means that so far, we have zombies of ice and fire. Makes sense, right?
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As for Melisandre, she’s another unusual case. I tend to think the signs point to her undergoing a transformation process, as I’ve said before, as opposed to a death and resurrection process, but we cannot know for sure and some people do think she has died and been resurrected. If so, it would have been with fire magic. We’ll talk more about her later as well.
The third kind of “zombie,” to use that as a catch-all term, would be Franken-Gregor, or un-Gregor as he is called. This is the one we know the least about – Qyburn seems like a fairly straightforward Dr. Frankenstein parallel, using some kind of fantasy pseudo science to reanimate the dead based on his knowledge gained from vivisection and other twisted pursuits… but it’s pretty vague. There is no sign of any kind of elemental force at work, no icy clouds wafting out of Qyburn’s laboratory or sulphur and brimstone stink, nothing like that. Un-Gregor himself doesn’t give us many clues as to his nature except that he seems to be even stronger than before, and he might not be able to speak – he might not even have his own head, actually. Our main clue as to what Qyburn is up to comes from a comment he made to Cersei about blood magic being the most powerful type of sorcery, and the seemingly implied possibility that he is using the blood sacrifice of the people delivered to him in the dungeons to work some kind of blood magic, but that’s about all we can say. Gregor is not the type of zombie we are interested in anyway, so we won’t have too much more to say about him.
One final outlier – Patchface. He does seem to have drowned, but we can’t say for sure. If he has undergone a death and resurrection process, which does seem like the most probable scenario, then it would have been accomplished through some freaky kind of water magic. This magical process might even be the origins of the Ironborn’s drowning-and-CPR ritual. Like Gregor, Patchface isn’t really the kind of zombie we are looking for, so we’ll only mention him in passing.
We also have other sorts of magical beings who have extended their lifespan and become something other than human, such as the Undying of Qarth, who have become mostly shadow; or the Others, who are god-only-knows how old and appear to be vaguely human-like, with icy bones and blood. This is also the category I believe Melisandre probably belongs in – magically transformed humans – and the point is that these creatures are something more than resurrected human corpses. As such, they aren’t quite what we are talking about. We are talking only about human beings who die and are then resurrected, and really what we care about are the fire undead people and Coldhands.
There’s some dispute about what has raised Beric and Stoneheart, so let me pull the quote from ASOS, and this is Thoros speaking:
I have no magic child. Only prayers. That first time, his lordship had a hole right through him and blood in his mouth, I knew there was no hope. So when his poor torn chest stopped moving, I gave him the good god’s own kiss to send him on his way. I filled my mouth with fire and breathed the flames down into him, down his throat to lungs and heart and soul. The last kiss, it is called, and many a time I saw the old priests bestow it upon the lord’s servants as they died. I had given it a time or two myself, as all priests must. But never before had I felt a man shudder as the fire filled him, nor seen his eyes come open. It was not me who raised him, my lady. It was the Lord. R’hllor is not done with him yet. Life is warmth, and warmth is fire, and fire is God’s and God’s alone.
Again, it is certainly a mystery as to why this last kiss suddenly was able to bring a dead man or woman back to life, but I think it is should be beyond dispute that it is primarily what we would call fire magic that is at work here. The two main candidates for explaining this sudden potency would be the birth of the dragons, which seems to have made all magic stronger throughout the world, or something having to do with the magic of the weirwoodnet. There are some weirwoods and weirwood stumps in the Riverlands, such as the High Heart and in Beric’s cave (which may well be below the High Heart). However Thoros is not a greenseer and no greenseers are present at any of Beric’s many resurrections, so all we can speculate on is some sort of regional effect, perhaps something like the Wall being a hinge of the world which makes magic stronger in its vicinity.
One bit of speculation I will throw out here – what if the original purpose of the ‘last kiss,’ which is given to people as soon as they die, was to resurrect people? Similar to the way the Ironborn CPR ritual may have an origin in a real water magic resurrection, it could be the same for the last kiss of the R’hllorists. As I’ve mentioned before, the R’hllorists do seem quite fixated on becoming fire people, wearing robes meant to look like shifting flames and tattooing flames on their faces. It’s not really hard to picture ancient R’hllorists making fire undead people like Beric.
The thing I want to focus on here is Beric’s quality of life and state of being. He’s much better off than the cold wights, completely different in fact, because Beric has free will and conscious thought, whereas the wights seem enslaved and retain very little of their original consciousness or memory. Beric even has a measure of vital function – his black blood still flows, and he can eat and drink, and presumably digest. At the same time, Beric also lost quite a bit of himself, as he tells Thoros in ASOS:
“Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the color of that woman’s hair. Who knighted me, old friend? What were my favorite foods? It all fades. Sometimes I think I was born on the bloody grass in that grove of ash, with the taste of fire in my mouth and a hole in my chest. Are you my mother, Thoros?”
It seems that Beric is losing something of himself each time he comes back. Later in ASOS, we have the following quote from Beric to Thoros, right after Thoros admits that lighting his tourney blades on fire wasn’t a good way to treat a sword. Beric walks up unannounced and sort of kills the vibe with:
“Fire consumes.” Lord Beric stood behind them, and there was something in his voice that silenced Thoros at once. “It consumes, and when it is done there is nothing left. Nothing.”
“Beric. Sweet friend.” The priest touched the lightning lord on his forearm. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing I have not said before. Six times, Thoros? Six times is too many.” He turned away abruptly.
Beric doesn’t even have it as bad as Lady Stoneheart, who was dead for three days before she was resurrected. Her physical state is decomposed, and it seems her mental state may be as well. While Beric rides around and employs strategy and thinks about logistics and feeding people and so on and so forth, while Stonehart simply gazes with malice and condemns people to die – her other names are “Mother Merciless” and “The Hangwoman”). She can speak, albeit in a strangled fashion, so some part of herself does remain… but she seems like further decomposed than Beric in every way. Thoros actually refused to give her the kiss, in fact, because she had been dead so long, but for some reason Beric chose to give up his burden and pass the flame of life along to Lady Catleyn-turned-Lady Stoneheart.
If I had to characterize the state of existence of Beric and Stoneheart, I would compare it to the way ghosts are portrayed in pop culture and myth. The most prevalent belief about ghosts is that they linger on the earthly plane clutching at something – some grievance or tragedy or remorse or other form of unresolved attachment to their life. It is almost always tied to whatever they were doing and however they were feeling when they died, and they key to helping set a ghost free to move on to the next realm generally has to do with bringing resolution to whatever the ghost is fixated on.
The last thing Beric was doing when he died was attempting to bring Gregor Clegane to justice and defending the Riverlands – and this becomes his sole motivation for existence after he is resurrected. He stays loyal to the mission he was sent on by Ned in the name of King Robert even after Robert and Ned are both dead. In similar fashion, Stoneheart is completely consumed with revenge for the Red Wedding, which is classic ghost material – a tragedy so heinous and unjust that there is no way the victim’s shade can find rest. She is a spectre who haunts the Riverlands, taking revenge on Freys and and anyone else connected to the Red Wedding.
I think all of this is indicative of Beric and Stoneheart as remnants of their former selves, not the complete soul returned to the body. They seem more like ghosts inhabiting their own reanimated corpses. We can’t hope to be too technical here about what is a soul and what is a shade, but the point is that Beric and Cat are both significantly deteriorated…
…and we don’t want that to be true of Jon Snow. That’s really what this comes down to – Jon is dead, and we don’t want to see him turn up like Beric or Stoneheart. This has led people to try to rationalize a way that Jon didn’t actually die there in the snow, because they just can’t accept the idea that Martin is going to turn the beloved Jon Snow into a Beric. Well, I am pretty sure Jon is dead – bleeding out from a neck wound so fast he loses consciousness in less than a minute – but take heart. I don’t think he’ll be a Beric, a remnant who can barely remember his former life or where his castle is. I don’t think that resurrected Jon will be obsessed with avenging his death on his conspirators, and if he does return to the last thing he was doing – planning an assault on Ramsay at Winterfell – I would expect that to not be the end of the line fore Jon. No, I think there is very good reason to think that Jon will turn out to be the optimal type of ‘zombie,’ the kind who can help save us from the Long Night.
The key is that Jon is a skinchanger.
Jon of the Dead
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With his dying words, Jon calls out to Ghost. And we know from the Varamyr prologue of ADWD that when a skinchanger’s human body is killed, his spirit goes into his animal, there to linger for an unspecified amount of time before it eventually fades away into the beast spirit – this is known as a skinchanger’s “second life.” We hear the same thing from Bloodraven as he and Bran are chatting after Bran’s first successful attempt to skinchange a raven in ADWD:
“Someone else was in the raven,” he told Lord Brynden, once he returned to his own skin. “Some girl. I felt her.”
“A woman, of those who sing the song of earth,” his teacher said. “Long dead, yet apart of her remains, just as a part of you would remain in Summer if your boy’s flesh were to die upon the morrow. A shadow on the soul. She will not harm you.”
While this spirit of this singer is no threat to Bran, something of the original skinchanger does linger inside the animal and can have an effect on any new skinchanger tp take possession of that animal . When the wildling skinchanger Orell is killed by Jon Snow, his spirit lives on inside his eagle with a fierce hatred for Jon. Later, Varamyr Sixskins takes possession of Orell’s eagle and says to Jon:
“Once a horse is broken to the saddle, any man can mount him,” he said in a soft voice. “Once a beast’s been joined to a man, any skinchanger can slip inside and ride him. Orell was withering inside his feathers, so I took the eagle for my own. But the joining works both ways, warg. Orell lives inside me now, whispering how much he hates you.
We get the most information about this in Varamyr’s prologue of ADWD, which practically seems like it is designed to function as a kind of skinchanger 101 for the reader:
“They say you forget,” Haggon had told him, a few weeks before his own death. “When the man’s flesh dies, his spirit lives on inside the beast, but every day his memory fades, and the beast becomes a little less a warg, a little more a wolf, until nothing of the man is left and only the beast remains.” Varamyr knew the truth of that. When he claimed the eagle that had been Orell’s, he could feel the other skinchanger raging at his presence. Orell had been slain by the turncloak crow Jon Snow, and his hate for his killer had been so strong that Varamyr found himself hating the beastling boy as well.
In fact, this process of a skinchanger merging with his beast can happen even without death being involved, as Jojen warns Bran in ASOS when Bran is gone too long in Summer’s skin:
“Bran the boy and Summer the wolf. You are two, then?”
“Two,” he signed, “and one.” He hated Jojen when he got stupid like this. At Wintefell he wanted me to dream my wolf dreams, and now that I know he’s always calling me back.
“Remember that, Bran. Remember yourself, or the wolf will consume you. When you join, it is not enough to run and hunt in Summer’s skin.”
Jojen’s point is punctuated by just how wolfish Bran acts when in Summer – he thinks and acts like a wolf, more or less. Jojen asks him to mark trees as a means of exercising his human thought while in the wolf, but Bran fails. This shows us that the beast presence is very strong and is always trying to take over the human presence, given enough time. It is no wonder that upon entering second life, a skinchanger would begin to become beast-like before too much time goes by.
So, getting back to Jon Snow’s body, lying in the bloody snow… Jon is dead and his spirit has almost certainly gone into Ghost. It will almost certainly be put back into Jon’s body somehow, lest we have only wolf-POV’s from Jon for the rest of the series, but we know there is a limited time in which to do so. This is probably the meaning of a vision Melisandre sees of Jon in the flames in ADWD:
The flames crackled softly, and in their crackling she heard the whispered name Jon Snow . His long face floated before her, limned in tongues of red and orange, appearing and disappearing again, a shadow half-seen behind a fluttering curtain. Now he was a man, now a wolf, now a man again. But the skulls were here as well, the skulls were all around him. Melisandre had seen his danger before, had tried to warn the boy of it. Enemies all around him, daggers in the dark . He would not listen. Unbelievers never listened until it was too late.
A man, and then a wolf, and then a man again – that seems pretty straightforward as far as prophecy goes. Almost everyone takes this to mean that Jon’s spirit will “go into” Ghost for a time and then eventually be returned to his body – a man and then a wolf and then a man again. In this scenario, Ghost is essentially acting as a soul-jar for Jon’s spirit, a storage vessel to keep it protected from dissolution until it can be put into a new host body… or a resurrected host body. This is a common trope in fantasy stories, the ancient wizard who keeps coming back no matter how often he is killed because he has a soul jar hidden somewhere which he returns to upon death, only to have his acolytes bring him a new host body so he can reincarnate.
Although I doubt Martin is imagining anything quite so fantastical as that, Ghost is in fact serving as a protective vessel for Jon’s soul – that is likely the meaning behind Martin’s choice to name the wolf ‘Ghost.’ This is the main reason why Jon will not be a Beric or a Stoneheart – his spirit will not dissolve into the ether upon death. When a normal person like Beric is called back, even right after his death, we’ve seen that large part of the self is already gone. But from everything we know about skinchnagers and second life, the human soul goes into the animal, and I think we are talking about the whole thing here. He will start to merge with Ghost and become more wolf-like, but assuming that someone can act in time, I believe that we have hope of getting a resurrected Jon who can still remember where his castle is, what fired bread dipped in bacon grease tastes like, and how to crack dick jokes with Tormund. And that is the beginning of why skinchangers make the best zombies, because their animals can act as storage vessels for a short time.
Sounds great, but there are three major obstacles.
First, his dead body will need to be reanimated or resurrected. That’s actually the least difficult problem, as we have multiple means by which this could occur. Jon is in the north, so ice magic is a possibility, and Melisandre is nearby, so fire magic is in play as well. It may even be possible that there is a way to resurrect people with greenseer magic, primarily based on this line from ADWD which comes after Bran wakes from his first round of greenseer visions through Winterfell’s heart tree and reports back on what he saw:
Bran’s throat was very dry. He swallowed. “Winterfell. I was back in Winterfell. I saw my father. He’s not dead, he’s not , I saw him, he’s back at Winterfell, he’s still alive.”
“No,” said Leaf. “He is gone, boy. Do not seek to call him back from death.”
It’s an odd line, because Bran isn’t even talking about attempting some sort of resurrection magic or anything, and Leaf just volunteers that a greenseer should not try to raise people from the dead. The only reason to really warn Bran against resurrection would be if it is indeed possible for a greenseer to raise the dead, and presumably this would have dire consequences. I tend to think greenseers can and have raised the dead, and we will talk about that more later, but for now we can simply say that there are multiple avenues to raise Jon’s body, be it a process based in ice or fire magic, or even a more theoretical greenseer-based process involving Bran and/or Bloodraven.
Jon’s body will be preserved from decomposition by the extreme cold – likely inside an ice cell – so the method of resurrection will determine the state of Jon’s physical body when he is returned to live. A fire resurrection seems to have a chance to restore some manner of vital processes like flowing blood and the ability to eat and drink, so I tend to favor that over ice, but who knows, maybe Jon doesn’t need to eat or drink to make for an interesting POV. Bran does see Jon in his coma vision “sleeping alone in a cold bed, his skin growing pale and hard as the memory of all warmth fled from him,” which could certainly be foreshadowing to Jon’s dead body becoming pale and hard like an ice wight or like Coldhands.
Now If Jon’s body is raised by cold magic, that means his body will have been wighted, and that presents the additional problem of having to drive the wight spirit out of the body so Jon can repossess it – that could make for some interesting drama, certainly. This may have happened to Coldhands, a cold wight who is not possessed by the Others’ blue-star-eyes magic, so we have to say this is a possibility for Jon too.
Old Nan had told her there were spiders down here, and rats as big as dogs. Robb smiled when she said that. “There are worse things than spiders and rats,” he whispered. “This is where the dead walk.” That was when they heard the sound, low and deep and shivery. Baby Bran had clutched at Arya’s hand. When the spirit stepped out of the open tomb, pale white and moaning for blood, Sansa ran shrieking for the stairs, and Bran wrapped himself around Robb’s leg, sobbing. Arya stood her ground and gave the spirit a punch. It was only Jon, covered with flour. “You stupid ,” she told him, “you scared the baby.”
This is one of the well-known foreshadowings of Jon’s death and resurrection – Arya’s punch mimics Bowen Marsh stabbing of Jon in the gut, which was also described as a punch. Jon is a pale white spirit with a shivery sound, so you could lean towards interpreting Jon as a cold resurrected being, but it’s not what I would call conclusive. His ghost could be pale white with red eyes, like his wolf Ghost, after all.
Consider also that if he is to wield a burning red sword, being an ice-wight might pose a problem – Coldhands stays well away from the fire, indicating that he is as vulnerable to fire as other ice wights are. And although I am probably biased in the way of fire, I really do like the idea that Ghosts’s red eyes are a foreshadowing of what Jon’s ghost will look like – pale white with eyes like two red suns. The second sun, if you will.
Heck, maybe Jon’s body will be raised by the Others ice magic and repossessed with the aid of Melisandre’s fire magic. I am trying to keep our speculation grounded in the examples of magic that we have already been given in the books, but we also do not know what limits of any magic are, so I am also suggesting things that may be one step further that what we have seen. Common fire breaks the spell over the wights by destroying them, perhaps fire magic could be used to simply break the hold of the Others on the corpse, whereupon can be repossessed by the original skinchanger spirit.
We don’t have any idea what a theoretical greenseer resurrection might look like, so that option is pretty much wide open. It may well be the best way, since both ice and fire resurrections seem to have certain limitations. A greenseer resurrection could be the ticket to getting a resurrected Jon that is basically whole, one that could perhaps sire children on a certain thought-to-be-infertile-but-maybe-isn’t Silver Dragon Queen.
The second obstacle to achieving resurrected skinchanger Jon is that we don’t know how long we have to get Jon’s spirit out of Ghost before his memories fade and he begins to merge with Ghosts’s spirit. If Jon is only in Ghost for a day or three, perhaps the human spirit can be separated from the wolf spirit and returned to his body. This leads to the third problem, which is ‘how do you put a skinchanger’s soul back into his resurrected body after he’s already begun his second life,’ but assuming that can be managed, this would be the more straightforward of the resurrection scenarios that we can imagine with the information we have. Ghost keeps Jon’s soul safe for just a couple of days, then it is somehow returned to his body, more or less intact.
But if he is in there longer… it’s possible his spirit could have merged with Ghost’s to the point where they can no longer be separated. In this scenario, the only way to get Jon back in his body would be to bring the wolf spirit along too, to put the merged man / wolf spirit back into the human body. This would make for some kind of badass wolfman zombie, the kind of dude I can see whooping ass on the Others or anyone else who gets in his way…. that’s pretty cool. The downside to this is that the wolf body would have to die, because if the merged wolf / man spirit is going back to Jon’s body, there is nothing left in the wolf.
This would actually line up very well with Jon’s many parallels with Mithras, because as we know, the white bull who is a friend to Mithras and even a part of Mithras in a sense has to be sacrificed so that Mithras can be reborn. In our other podcasts, we have seen that Ghost has several scenes of foreshadowing involving bulls and sacrifice, so I feel like there is a good chance this will happen. In this case we could look at the idea of a merged wolf-man spirit going back into Jon as a silver lining, because Ghost won’t really be dead – just his wolf body. Ghost will live on in Jon… with Jon’s ghost.
The third problem, which I already mentioned, is how to get Jon’s spirit or the merged Jon / Ghost spirit out of the wolf and into the man again. A skinchanger cannot do this himself – once he begins second life in his animal, he cannot then skinchange other animals or a new human body. Someone is going to have to help, and I think were got a likely foreshadowing of this in ASOS when Orell recalls being kicked out of his eagle:
One moment, he had been soaring above the Wall, his eagle’s eyes marking the movement of the men below. Then the flames had turned his heart into a blackened cinder and sent his spirit screaming back into his own skin, and for a little while he’d gone mad. Even the memory was enough to make him shudder.
This isn’t exactly like Jon’s scenario will be, because Orell is not dead, merely inhabiting his eagle when the eagle is killed, but if we look at this as potential literary foreshadowing, what we just saw was Melisandre use fire to drive a skinchanger’s spirit from his animal. It could be a similar scenario with Ghost being burned to send the wolfman spirit back into the reanimated Jon body.
Another potential foreshadowing of Jon’s resurrection comes from Mirri Maz Duur’s attempts to save Drogo’s life. Consider Mirri’s words as she sacrifices the stallion:
“Strength of the mount, go into the rider,” Mirri sang as horse blood swirled into the waters of Drogo’s bath. “Strength of the beast, go into the man.”
If Drogo had been a skinchanger, this ceremony might have actually worked. Drogo’s body wasn’t quite dead, but it was slipping into a coma and his spirit could easily have been beginning to separate from his body – we don’t know the theoretical rules of magic in this fictional universe. But the point is this – if Drogo was a skinchanger, this whole thing would have made a lot of sense. His spirit would have gone into that horse as he died, and therefore killing the horse in such a way as to have the strength of the horse go into the rider would be akin to returning Drogo’s spirit from his horse back to his body. Mirri’s leaf-shaped bronze knife, engraved with runes, almost reminds us of a First Men type of blood sacrifice ritual.
And just to tell you, there is a really cool theory that the Dothraki bond with their horses – they let other share their wives but not their horses, for example, and their horse are slaughtered when they die – is a leftover remnant of a time when Dothraki actually skinchnaged their horses. This is speculative, but not impossible, because in TWOIAF we learn of the Ifequevron, the Woods Walkers, who sound more or less exactly like cotf – and they live in a forest just north of the Dothraki sea and were revered by the Dothraki. There are tales of centaurs in the ancient past in that area, which could be accounts of horse skinchangers. If that’s the case, Mirri might well have been using a skinchanger resurrection ceremony quite intentionally, knowing it would not work on Drogo and produce a vegetable. Now, regardless of whether any of that is true, I do think this botched resurrection involving the horse and Drogo might be serving as a loose parallel to the resurrection process for Jon.
George has also given us a Biblical zombie reference here, as Mirri is of the people known as the Lhazar, a seeming variant of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.
Thinking again of Qyburn and un-Gregor, it may be that Qyburn was somehow using blood magic to send the strength or life force of the various torture victims into Gregor’s corpse to animate it, just as Mirri tried to send the strength of the horse into the rider.
It’s pretty interesting to note that both Qyburn and Mirri are practicing what we would call blood magic, and both studied magic in Asshai. But while Qyburn’s blood magic has neither fire or ice involved, Mirri’s blood magic performed on Drogo gives us a whiff of both, and here we find another parallel between this ceremony and Jon Snow’s potential resurrection. This is Dany’s inner monologue from AGOT:
Inside the tent the shapes were dancing, circling the brazier and the bloody bath, dark against the sandsilk, and some did not look human. She glimpsed the shadow of a great wolf, and another like a man wreathed in flames.
Jon Snow, being the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, of dragon and dire wolf, is very much a representation of the unity of ice and fire. Sometimes I like to call him ‘Azor Ahai reborn in an icy sheath’ – consider his dream in ADWD where is manning the Wall alone, armored in black ice with a sword that burns red in his fist. So when we consider the man wreathed in flame and the great wolf in Mirri’s tent, we can see a personification of Jon Snow. The flaming man can represent his Targaryen side – dragons are fire made flesh, Dany proclaims herself fire made flesh when she wakes the dragons, and Azor Ahai reborn is the “warrior of fire.” The great wolf, on the other hand, seems like an obvious callout to the dire wolf of House Stark.
Why would there be parallels to Jon’s resurrection here at Drogo’s botched resurrection? For one, simply as a means to foreshadow the animal sacrifice component of Jon’s resurrection in a clever way; two, equating Jon with Drogo , Dany’s husband, may serve to foreshadow a union between Dany and Jon; and three, because both Jon and Drogo play into the larger “solar king” archetype which is a part of the Azor Ahai character. Regular listeners and readers of Mythical Astronomy will know what I am talking about here, and if you’re curious about this, simply check out the first episode of the Bloodstone Compendium, our very first podcast. The main point is that the death of the solar king is the first part of the Azor Ahai reborn process. In Dany’s case, Drogo the solar king dies at the same time Daenerys rises as Azor Ahai reborn, the new solar king. She takes his place as Khalessi and wears the lion pelt to signify to all that she “has Drogo’s strength inside her.” In Jon’s case, he is both the dying solar king and the reborn Azor Ahai. Dany had a symbolic rebirth in the pyre, and Jon will have a more literal resurrection, becoming Azor Ahai reborn the zombie, which is kind of what we are getting at here.
So let’s return to the matter at hand, which is how to get Jon’s spirit or a combined Jon / Ghost spirit back into Jon’s resurrected body. So far, it doesn’t look good for Ghost’s wolf body surviving, and we aren’t done yet. We have other examples of skinchangers being forced out of their animal by pain – it happens to Bran in ACOK when he tries to climb a tree in Summer’s body as the Ironborn are invading – Summer falls and Bran is forced out by the pain. It also happens to Jon and Ghost in the skirling pass – Jon is forced out of Ghost in ACOK when Ghost is viciously attacked by Orell’s eagle. And in A Storm of Swords, Bran’s wolf Summer takes a wound while saving Jon’s life from the wildling party, and when Bran tries to reach out to Summer afterward, we read that:
Bran had reached out for Summer time and time again, but the pain he found drove him back, the way a red hot kettle makes you pull your hand back even when you mean to grab it.
Pain seems to be a pretty reliable way to force a skinchanger out of an animal, and here the pain is even compared to a red hot kettle, another potential allusion to the idea of burning Ghost.
Approaching this problem from the opposite end, how else might we accomplish the moving of Jon’s soul back into his body? Well, we have one other example of how this might be done, and I’m happy to say that it actually gives Ghost a chance to live! Wouldn’t that be nice. It comes from Varamyr’s prologue in ADWD:
None of them had been as strong as Varamyr Sixskins though, not even Haggon, tall and grim, with his hands as hard as stone. The hunter died weeping when Varamyr took Greyskin from him, driving him out to claim the beast for his own. No second life for you, old man.
Again, the important difference between this example and Jon’s resurrection scenario is that Haggon was simply driven out of his wolf and back into his still living body; what we need to do with Jon is going to be harder, because we need to put the spirit back into a reanimated corpse, and because Jon’s spirit may have merged with Ghost’s to some extent. Nevertheless, this is the only other precedent for forcing a skinchanger spirit out of an animal, so it is worth considering.
The obvious candidates for a skinchanger powerful enough to pull off something like this would of course be Bloodraven or Bran. I’d like to give a shout-out to radio Westeros here, whose episode “Jon Snow: Only the Cold” suggests Bran’s involvement in Jon’s resurrection, perhaps in the Weirwood ‘Grove of Nine’ where the Night’s Watch brothers say their vows in front of heart trees. They also suggested the idea of a merged Jon-Ghost which produces a more wolfish Jon, which I obviously think is a terrific idea with a good chance of shaking out to be true.
Alright, so we’ve presented multiple ways by which Jon might be resurrected, and two different ways he might be sent out of Ghost and back into his body. Let’s say that some combination of these possibilities works out, and now we’ve raised Jon from the dead. His skinchanger status has hopefully preserved his spirit more than other zombies we have met. Maybe he’s a wolfman, maybe it’s mostly same old Jon, but either way, he’s a skinchanger zombie, and he’s the best zombie we ever met. He’s got to be handsome enough to woo Daenerys, after all.
So what’s the point of killing Jon and raising him from the dead, other than a dramatic narrative cliffhanger where we all think Jon is dead for five years while George writes the next book? I’ve made this point elsewhere in passing, but it really deserves it owns time in the sun, and that’s why I made this stand along episode about zombies. This is the ultimate purpose of not only Jon’s resurrection, but of the general increase in zombie activity in the story which admittedly, strikes some people as out of place or odd.
So what’s all this zombie stuff about?
This is about the last hero. The old last hero and the new last hero.
This is about creating the ideal person to journey into the cold, dead lands and confront the Others. We don’t know if that means fighting the Others or something more complex, some kind of negotiation, trade, or sacrifice; but the main thing we do know is that the last hero journeyed into these “cold dead lands” and confronted the Others, and this is thought to have somehow brought about the end of the Long Night. We’ll talk about all that, but just think for a moment about the skill-set offered by a fully conscious resurrected person.
“There’s been too much going around,” Meera insisted, “and too many secrets. I don’t like it. I don’t like him. And I don’t trust him. Those hands of his are bad enough. He hides his face, and will not speak a name. Who is he? What is he? Anyone can put on a black cloak. Anyone, or any thing . He does not eat, he never drinks, he does not seem to feel the cold.”
It’s true. Bran had been afraid to speak of it, but he had noticed. Whenever they took shelter for the night, while he and Hodor and the Reeds huddled together for warmth, the ranger kept apart. Sometimes Coldhands closed his eyes, but Bran did not think he slept.
He doesn’t need to eat.
He doesn’t need to sleep.
He doesn’t need to seek warmth or shelter.
Like I said, pretty much the ideal skill set to survive north of the Wall, right? Those are the major problems – food, shelter, warmth, and all solved by zombie-hood. This is exactly what is going on with Coldhands, who has been ranging the frozen dead lands beyond the Wall for God-only-knows how long. I’m not saying Coldhands is the original last hero – though it is possible – but what I am proposing is this: both Coldhands and the last hero have something in common with Jon Snow, and that is being a resurrected skinchanger or greenseer. I am proposing that only a resurrected skinchanger can ultimately face down the Others and their cold winds and that Jon is going to become a resurrected skinchanger precisely because he will be the man to confront the Others, the new last hero for a new Long Night which is surely coming.
We have a lot less to go on with the last hero, so we will start with him and then go on to Coldhands, one of the best mysteries in ASOIAF… I have been waiting since like forever to talk about Coldhands, and he might be my favorite character, as odd as that sounds. Talk of Jon will be woven throughout, and we might see some little Green Men pop up here and there.
The Last Hero Was a Zombie
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This is the theory in a nutshell – the Last Hero was a skinchanger or greenseer who became a zombie in order to defeat the Others. Again, we don’t know how exactly this was done – the annals of the Night’s Watch speak of the Last Hero slaying Others with a blade of Dragonsteel, so fighting is probably involved, but in a story like AOSIAF, it’s also unlikely that the fate of the world will come down to just sword fighting. That’s not really important for the matter at hand though – however he confronted the Others, being a skinchanger zombie is what made it possible in my opinion. Jon will be called upon to do the same, and he is about to be a skinchanger zombie.
That’s actually one of the best supporting pieces of evidence for this theory – Jon IS in fact going to be a resurrected skinchanger, and we are left to ask why. I believe this theory provides compelling reason for it, and I cannot think of any other reason for him to be undead other than ‘it uniquely prepares him to journey into the cold dead lands,’ as Coldhands does now and as the Last Hero once did.
Alright, so let us consider the last hero. We are told of him in AGOT by none other than Old Nan:
“So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—”
The idea that the last hero might have been a Stark, together with the dog in this story, have been taken by many as clues that the last hero was a skinchanger. We generally associate the First Men with skinchanging and the Starks with being wargs, so it just kind of feels right. The tradition of creating stone effigies of the Kings of Winter with a wolf at their side which goes back eight thousand years in the past or more speaks of a family that has always been a family of wargs. When you consider that Bran and Jon, the characters who most closely parallel the last hero, are both skinchangers, it starts to seem more and more likely.
In any case, we are all familiar with the basics: twelve companions who died, a dog and horse who also died, a sword broken from the cold, the Others and their ice spiders… and then there’s a gap in the story, as Martin interrupts Old Nan with other events in the chapter. But later in the chapter, Bran and the rest receive news from Yoren that BenJen Stark has not been seen in a while, and we get a clue about the resolution of the last hero’s story:
All Bran could think of was Old Nan’s story of the Others and the last hero, hounded through the white woods by dead men and spiders a big as hounds. He was afraid for a moment, until he remembered how that story ended. “The children will help him,” he blurted, “The children of the forest!”
Theon Greyjoy sniggered, and Maester Luwin said “Bran, the children of the forest have been dead and gone for thousands of years. All that is left of them are the faces in the trees.”
“Down here, might be that’s true, Maester,” Yoren said, “but up past the Wall, who’s to say? Up there, a man can’t always tell what’s alive and what’s dead.”
Truer words were never spoken – north of the Wall, it’s hard to tell what is alive and what is dead. Lots of foreshadowing in this passage, which is why I quoted a bit more of it than necessary. The key point is the last hero’s story – at some point after the death of his twelve companions, his horse, and his dog, he receives some kind of aid from the children of the forest that allows him to triumph.
That’s pretty wide open – we don’t know what kind of help he received or how that enabled him to win. We can immediately speculate that they might have sheltered him from the Others, because we have seen the children do that for Bran in Bloodraven’s hollow hill, which is warded by spells that the wights cannot break. (Those same spells keep Coldhands out as well, confirming that Coldhands is basically similar in nature to the cold wights except for not being possessed.) But sheltering the last hero from the Others doesn’t defeat Others or win the War for the Dawn, so there must be a few more pieces to the puzzle.
The only other clue about the last hero comes in AFFC when Sam reports back to Jon his findings in the annals of the Night’s Watch. It’s short, so we’ll just quote it to be exact:
“I found one account of the Long Night that spoke of the last hero slaying Others with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it.”
Somehow, the last hero goes from cold and alone and chased by the Others to possessing this mysterious sword of dragonsteel which the Others could not stand against. That is all we have to go on regarding the last hero, and it leaves a lot of questions. The children in ancient day provided dragonglass weapons to the Night’s Watch, so if dragonsteel is simply a big, sword-sized hunk of dragonglass, then maybe the children gave him the sword and that is that. But if it is something more, some kind of metal, then it’s hard to see how the children could have provided it.
Aziz from History of Westeros suggested on our recent collaborative episode on the Great Empire of the Dawn that the rumors of the children trading with seafaring traders in the Dawn Age at Battle Isle could account for the children somehow coming into possession of an advanced steel weapon that they could have later provided to the last hero. That is one possibility, and otherwise it’s hard to see how the children could have provided the last hero with a sword.
The other possibility is that they didn’t – perhaps they provided him some other kind of help crucial to defeating the Others. .
Perhaps they raised the last hero from the dead.
If the Last Hero was an undead skinchanger as I suggest, then someone has to raise him from the dead. It could have been anyone, someone not pictured in the story, but the children are the obvious candidate.
“Do not seek to call him back from death.”
So you’re saying there’s a chance… ha ha. There’s another clue about the children being able to interact with the dead in ACOK, when Lord Commander Mormont leads the ranging into the haunted forest and they come upon Whitetree and its monstrous weirwood. Mormont is contemplating a human skull found in the maw of the weirwood like some kind of barbarian Hamlet:
“Would that bones could talk,” the Old Bear grumbled. “This fellow could tell us much. . How he died. Who burned him, and why. Where the wildlings have gone.” He sighed. “The children of the forest could speak to the dead, but I can’t.”
For what it’s worth, Martin did create a “Yorick Yronwood” who apparently joined the Night’s Watch sometime in the past, so the odds are good that this scene is a humorous nod to Hamlet. In any case, this idea that the children could speak to the dead could be a garbled account of greenseers “speaking with the dead” in the sense that they can hear the words spoken in the past by people who are now dead. But from what we have seen so far, the most greenseers seem to be able to do is to rustle their leaves a bit for the person in the past or breathe a word on the wind in the present time, as Bran does by making the Winterfell heart tree whisper Theon’s name. That’s not really speaking with the dead though, so perhaps this is a clue about the children being able to actually interact with deceased souls – and maybe, just maybe, call them back.
A slight variation on this idea would be the possibility that the last hero was killed by the Others and wighted, and the children helped him by driving out the Other’s magical possession, freeing his soul and making him a conscious cold wight. This may be how Coldhands was created, and it could happen to Jon, as I mentioned. If the last hero was a skinchanger, then the same logic applies to him that applies to Jon – his soul might have been stored in an animal until his body could be freed of Other-possession, and the children are a likely candidate to have helped accomplish this.
Once again, on the most basic level, Jon will be an undead skinchanger, so his parallels to the last hero – which we will discuss in more detail as we go – demand that we consider the possibility that the last hero might have been an undead skinchanger, however he might have been resurrected. If we look at the last hero story as a fable, we can see that his very act of journeying into the “dead lands” is thematically symbolic of someone journeying into the realm of death, into the grave, and seeking for a way to defeat it. Thematically, it’s about defeating death, and thus, resurrection, and it may well be literally about those things too.
Jon parallels the last hero, but he also parallels Azor Ahai, a character who is, as it happens, fundamentally about being reborn. He ain’t called Azor Ahai reborn for nothin, right? Jon is about to become Azor Ahai reborn as a zombie, so again, we must consider it possible that the original Azor Ahai was a zombie.
If you know anything about Mythical Astronomy of Ice and Fire, you know that I believe the concept of ‘Azor Ahai reborn’ does not apply to merely one person, that it is more like an archetypal role which multiple characters play into. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are the two most obvious and important manifestations of the idea of ‘Azor Ahai reborn,’ but other characters seem to parallel Azor Ahai as well, such as Beric Dondarrion and Stannis Baratheon, two people who wield flaming swords in the series. That does not mean that every single person who echoes some part of the Azor Ahai symbolism will play a part in ending the Long Night as we expect Jon and Dany to. Beric, for example, is already dead – dead as in permanently dead – so we know that his echoes of Azor Ahai are probably meant to be symbolic in nature. Stannis is basically an imposter Azor Ahai with a fake Lightbringer, and he too I tend to view as a symbolic echo, meant to inform us about the nature of Azor Ahai.
With that brief explanation of archetypes and how there are used in mind, consider Beric and Stannis, two of our flaming sword wielders, because both give us clues about an undead skinchanger or greenseer version of Azor Ahai. Stannis is an obvious Azor Ahai parallel by virtue of being called Azor Ahai reborn and wielding a flaming sword called Lightbringer, but it goes further. Stannis heads north to the Wall and he is primarily concerned with facing the threat of the Others, just like the last hero. And wouldn’t you know it, Stannis is often described as half a corpse. He’s apparently been drained by making shadow babies with Melisandre, as Davos observes in ACOK:
Now that Stannis Baratheon had come into his power, the lordlings buzzed around him like flies round a corpse. He looks half a corpse too, years older than when I left Dragonstone.
Half-corpse Azor Ahai, in other words. He also keeps a fire-magic user at his side and even practices a bit of fire magic as well, seeing a vision or two in the flames in his own right.
As for clues about skinchanging or greenseeing, we must look to his House. Stannis is a Baratheon, whose sigil is the stag (Stannis’s is a burning stag enclosed in a fiery heart) and the Baratheons typically wear helms with antlers on them. The ancient Storm Kings of Durrandon also wore “the stag crown,” which is more of the same symbolism. Naturally, this reminds us very much of the green men on the Isle of Faces who are said to either have antlers on their heads or to wear antlered head gear, and who are likely to be greenseers of some fashion or another. Thus, Stannis is a half-corpse stag man who carries Lightbringer. Apologies for just dropping something tasty like the Green Men in there offhandedly, but we’ll talk about green men quite a bit in just a minute.
Then we have Beric, owner of perhaps the largest inventory of meaningful symbolism in the entire series. He’s got the flaming sword, and he’s a resurrected corpse, and he’s strongly tied to fire magic, so like Stannis, he implies Azor Ahai the fiery half-corpse. Beric has weaker parallels to the last hero in that he heroically leads a noble brotherhood against long odds and wears a black cloak, although admittedly Beric’s black cloak is speckled with stars and that is clearly against the Night’s Watch dress code.
Beric isn’t a stag man, but he is sworn to one – King Robert, in whose name he fights on. Beric also has several clear parallels with Bloodraven which I am sure most of you are familiar with which work to imply Beric as a stand-in for a greenseer. When we first see resurrected Beric, he’s in a cave threaded through with weirwood roots, just like Bloodraven’s cave, and he is seated in a tangle of weirwood roots, very like Bloodaven and the other greenseers in the cave who sit in weirwood thrones. Beric had one eye put out, just like Bloodraven. Beric is called “a scarecrow knight” while Bloodraven is the three-eyed crow and was once a crow of the Night’s Watch. Beric is also called “the lord of corpses,” while Bloodraven is called the corpse lord in a Bran chapter of ADWD. Beric is called the “wisp o’ the wood,” and wisp means ghost, while Bloodraven is essentially a ghost turning into a tree.
All of which is to say, Beric is showing us the symbolism of a resurrected greenseer or skinchanger who wields Lightbringer, just like Stannis, and just like Jon. And perhaps, just like the last hero.
Jon and Stannis also have the blood of the dragon in their veins, while Beric parallels someone who does, Bloodraven. The notion of the last hero being a resurrected skinchanger with the blood of the dragon meshes well with the idea of the last hero being connected to Azor Ahai, who almost certainly had the blood of the dragon in his veins. Once again, Jon seems to be the culmination of all of this, uniting greenseer blood and dragon blood, wielding a burning red sword (only in his dreams so far, but you know it is coming in real life too), becoming a resurrected person, leading the fight against the Others… And if you are curious about hearing some of the other evidence for the idea of Azor Ahai being a greenseer, check out my episode called “The Grey King and the Sea Dragon” if you haven’t already. This is my current hypothesis about Azor Ahai, that he was a greenseer, and that’s irrespective of whether or not he is the hast hero, although obviously I think there is some sort of close connection.
It’s also worth noting that fire magic is the key to the transformation process of both Stannis and Beric. Beric is resurrected by fire magic, and Stannis has been drained and turned corpse-like though the use of Melisandre’s fire magic. This may be another clue about Jon’s resurrection coming via fire magic, and / or a clue about the last hero being raised with such, though I want to stay open minded about that. I am holding out hope for a greenseer resurrection, if only to see what happens.
Alright, I think our theory makes sense. A skinchanger zombie is ideally suited to face the cold dead lands, and that is what the last hero did. Jon will be a skinchanger zombie, and he’s probably fated to journey into those same cold dead lands. Several major characters who parallel Azor Ahai reborn to some extent suggest the idea of a resurrected skinchanger or greenseer. But Jon hasn’t been resurrected yet, and we may have already seen a resurrected skinchanger… so let’s talk about Coldhands.
Hands of Cold are Always Old
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“Brother!” The shout cut through the night, through the shrieks of a thousand ravens. Beneath the trees, a man muffled head to heels in mottled blacks and greys sat astride an elk. “Here,” the rider called. A hood shadowed his face.
He’s wearing blacks. Sam urged Gilly toward him. The elk was huge, a great elk, ten feet tall at the shoulder, with a rack of antlers near as wide. The creature sank to his knees to let them mount. “Here,” the rider said, reaching down with a gloved hand to pull Gilly up beside him. Then it was Sam’s turn. “My thanks,” he puffed. Only when he grasped the offered hand did he realize that the rider wore no glove. His hand was black and cold, with fingers hard as stone.
And with that memorable scene from ASOS, Coldhands rides into our imagination, giving rise to a thousand fan theories and one. First off, I have to say that I do not think Coldhands is being skinchanged by Bloodraven, a theory which is out there. I think this is apparent from the way that Coldhands speaks and acts, as we will see in our analysis here. No, I believe Coldhands is his own man – his own dead man, rather. I am proposing that is an undead skinchanger or greenseer. Not only that, but he seems to still be in possession of his greenseer magic, which is a good sign for resurrected Jon being able to use magic. It probably couldn’t be any other way, if you think about it – it doesn’t make much sense to take away Jon’s magic before the conclusion of the books. If anything, I am expecting resurrected Jon to potentially have more access to magic, not less. So let’s start there, with why I think Coldhands is a skinchanger or greenseer, and why I think he is still in possession of his magic.
The first clue is that the great elk which Coldhands rides is not terrified of him, as animals usually are of the corpse stink of the wights, which Coldhands definitely has. We are introduced to the idea that animals are not keen for the smell of wights in AGOT, when Jon and the Night’s Watch discover the corpses of Jafer Flowers and Othor in the haunted forest. None of the dogs will go near the corpses, no matter if they are kicked and dragged by mean old Chett. Even when the corpses are wrapped up in cloaks, they cause the horses to go mad when the brothers try to put the corpses on their back. The horses kick and scream and bite to the point where the black brothers had to rig up sleds to drag the bodies back to Castle Black themselves.
The direwolves are not quite as terrified of the cold wights – recall that it was Ghost who found the corpses and tore off a hand to bring back to show Jon. But they still smell the peculiar cold corpse stink of the wights and they do not like it. This is from the first Bran chapter of ADWD when the party is starting north with Coldhands:
The elk stopped suddenly, and the ranger vaulted lightly from his back to land in knee deep snow. Summer growled at him, his fur bristling. The dire wolf did not like the way Coldhands smelled. Dead meat. dry blood, and a faint whiff of rot. And cold, cold all over.
Notice that there’s only a faint whiff of rot – the cold and or the cold magic seems to preserve the wighted bodies. It was the same when Jon and company found Other and Jafer Flowers – they did not smell like decomposing bodies. So the smell of these icy undead is different than a dead body, and presumably not as bad – nothing is as bad as decomposing flesh, after all. Despite this, normal animals are terrified of them, and even direwolves are not too keen on them. There is something about their smell which is just plain old wrong, and thematically, this makes sense because the wights are essentially an abomination of natural life.
The great elk, however, shows no signs of being troubled by Coldhands ‘wrong’ smell, permitting Coldhands to ride on its back as if it were a horse or a mule. The only explanation is magic, of one sort or another.
Even without the corpse-stink problem, riding a great elk is basically a miracle. How many of you know what a great elk actually is? It’s a real thing, and it’s absolutely terrifying. Do yourself a favor, right now if you can, and look up ‘irish elk skeleton’ or ‘monoceros skeleton’ and take a look at these beasts. Ten feet tall at the shoulder is not an exaggeration, and a rack of antlers the same distance across is no lie either.
And saying “rack of antlers” doesn’t really do it justice – they look like two five foot dragon wings made of bone with swords attached to them. Take a look and tell me if you have a better description, because that’s pretty much whether look like. The muscle necessary to lift a head with those giant multi-pronged man-skewers must’ve been stupendous – this was an immensely powerful, truly terrifying creature if angered. Normal stags are symbolic of wild male virility, the ultimate untamable animal, and this is basically like a stag reimagined in some sort of demonic alternate universe. Dragon wings, with swords sticking out, made of bone, I’m telling you. You don’t want nunna this.
I’ve been meaning to rant about irish elk for a while now, but the point is that this is a wild beast, not a mule, and the only way anyone could ride one is through greenseer magic. Additionally, and of course this is the point, Coldhands isn’t just any old person, he’s an icy undead, with his unnatural smell that animals really do not like – so Coldhands is not only taming a fearsome wild beast, but he’s somehow overcoming the fear of wighted corpses which all animals seem to share. It’s a mystery deserving of an answer.
Perhaps more inexplicably, the elk seems to obey Coldhands’ commands even after he separates from the party to go after the rogue Night’s Watch mutineers. The elk carries the children to a pre-designated spot, or at least very close to it, which is the little abandoned wildling village by the lake. On the way, Bran thinks how he cannot tell from the snow-covered landscape where the lake ends or begins but that the elk seemed to know the way – and indeed it did. This is highly intelligent, coordinated, cooperative behavior between the elk and Coldhands, and again it really doesn’t make any sense without greenseer magic as an explanation. And on the flip side, greenseer magic very neatly explains what we see – except that Coldhands is dead.
Here we come upon a problem with the idea that Bloodraven is skinchanging Coldhand’s corpse – if he is inhabiting Coldhands’s body, who is working magic on the elk? It seems unlikely Bloodraven is doing all of that at once – we’ve never been shown a skinchanger who can split his consciousness and inhabit two beings simultaneously – much one less one who can simultaneously inhabit something that is dead and something that is living. It make more sense that the relationship between the elk and Coldhands is more typical of a skinchanger and his animal, as it appears to be.
Skinchangers do not need to literally inhabit an animal to control it. Varymyr Sixskins is able to ride his snow bear without actually skinchanging it for example – the mere fact that he has established a skinchanger bond with the bear is enough to control it. We are told the bear hated Varamyr’s bonding with it, so we know that when Varamyr rides it, he is in fact using his skinchanger magic to control a wild beast without actually inhabiting its consciousness from moment to moment. Otherwise, he’d be in a dream state on top of the bear and he would fall off. It just wouldn’t work, you know?
We could also look to the Starks and their wolves as examples – the wolves are fearsome deadly beasts, but never hurt the Stark children, and the Stark children don’t need to be skinchanging their wolves from moment to moment to make it so. What we can say from all of this is that if Coldhands has access to skinchanger magic, it explains the problem of the elk very well.
The one major possibility are those children of the forest greenseers Bran sees in Bloodraven’s cave. They seem pretty far gone, but who knows, maybe they reforming the elk to carry a corpse on its back against its will. The main argument I have against this is that there are signs of a personal relationship between Coldhands and the great elk which smacks of a typical human – animal bond or a skinchanger – animal bond. I am mentioning it in the interest of good scholarship, but I think this option unlikely, as you will see.
The next sign of Coldhands using skinchanger magic that we need to discuss is his communication with ravens. Although we associate the idea of using ravens to communicate with the maesters, this practice actually originated with skinchangers, as we learn from Lord Brynden Rivers a.k.a. the three-eyed crow in ADWD:
“Do all the birds have singers in them?”
“All,” Lord Brendan said. “It was the singers who taught the First Men to send messages by raven… but in those days, the birds would speak the words. The trees remember, but men forget, and so now they write the messages on parchment and tie them round the feet of birds who have never shared their skin.”
The last line makes it clear that the original practice was to share the skins of the birds being used to communicate, not just a matter of training the ravens to speak or even understanding the speech of ravens, though the children are also said to be able to understand animal speech. But here Bloodraven is specifically indicating that human skinchangers in ancient day used ravens communicate with each other by means of sharing their skin. Right after this quote, Bran thinks that Old Nan had told him similar stories, and in TWOIAF the maesters also refer to the idea that children of the forest “could speak with ravens and make them repeat their words,” and that the children taught this “higher mystery” as they call it to the First Men so they might use ravens to communicate. In other words, the idea is out there, but Bloodraven has the insider information – it was originally skinchangers, first children the forest and then First Men – who used their magic to communicate via raven.
And so, in the first Bran chapter of ADWD, we see Coldhands… well let’s just read it:
From a nearby oak a raven quorked, and Bran heard the sound of wings as another of the big black birds flapped down to land beside it. By day only half a dozen ravens stayed with them, flitting from tree to tree or riding on the antlers of the elk. The rest of the murder flew ahead or lingered behind. But when the sun sank low they would return, descending from the sky on night-black wings until every branch of every tree was thick with them for yards around. Some would fly to the ranger and mutter at him, and it seemed to Bran that he understood their quorks and squawks. They are his eyes and ears. They scout for him, and whisper to him of dangers ahead and behind .
If Bloodraven was skinchanging Coldhands, there would be no need for Coldhands to use the ravens for scouting, because Bloodraven can already see anything he wants through the weirwoodnet. But if we look at Coldhands as a greenseer or skinchanger, this scene makes perfect sense – he’s communicating with the ravens just like an ancient First Man skinchanger would. If it weren’t for the fact that he is dead, he would be easy to recognize as a greenseer or skinchanger.
In fact, we might even recognize him as a green man, as in the Sacred Order of Green Men that keep watch on the Isle of Faces. When Samwell emerges for the well at the Nightfort to the great surprise of Bran and company in ASOS, he begins to tell them about Coldhands:
“He said.” Jojen frowned. “This … Coldhands?”
“That wasn’t his true name,” said Gilly, rocking. “We only called him that, Sam and me. His hands were cold as ice, but he saved us from the dead men, him and his ravens, and he brought us here on his elk.”
“His elk?” said Bran, wonderstruck.
“His elk?” said Meera, startled.
“His ravens ?” said Jojen.
“Hodor?” said Hodor.
“Was he green?” Bran wanted to know. “Did he have antlers?”
The fat man was confused. “The elk?”
“Coldhands, ” said Bran impatiently. “The green men ride on elks, Old Nan used to say. Sometimes they have antlers too.”
We do not really know what the green man are – humans, or elves, or something in between – but it is worth noting that Coldhands seems to be imitating one by riding the elk and keeping watch over the deep wood… except that he’s a dead man in blacks instead of a living one in green. Whatever the green men are, they are certainly associated with greenseeing and the children of the forest, as we know they are said to “keep their silent watch” on the Isle of Faces, one of the only places in the south where the weirwoods were not cut down. The story goes that in the Dawn Age, the children of the forest and the First Men gathered on the Isle of Faces to sign the Pact. Maester Luwin picks up the story on AGOT:
So the gods might bear witness to the signing, every tree on the island was given a face, and afterward, the sacred order of green men was formed to keep watch over the Isle of Faces.
Personally, I think it would make sense that the people stuck on the Isle of faces with nothing but trees with faces would be able to… you know, use the trees with faces. Bran thinks to himself in ASOS that “All the tales agreed that the green men had strange magic powers,” and the most likely magic to associate with green men on an island full of weirwood trees would be greenseer or skinchanger magic. I definitely think we can take the association drawn between Coldhands and the green men as another clue about Coldhands having something to do with greenseers and their magic, if nothing else. We are going to find more signs of green men as we go, however, so there may be something more specific to green men going on here.
Turning back to evidence that Coldhands currently uses skinchanger magic, we find that he seems to have a great deal of remote knowledge. This is most likely though the scouting of the ravens, as we’ve seen, but it’s not impossible that he has some more direct connection to the weirwoodnet and / or Bloodraven. Just because I do not think Bloodraven is skinchanging Coldhands doesn’t mean they can’t have a method of communication. Perhaps Bloodraven speaks to Coldhands through the ravens, or perhaps he can send Coldhands occasional visions as he does to Bran.
The picture being painted here is that the ranger Coldhands has the haunted forest on lockdown. Not only does Coldhands detect the Night’s Watch mutineers from Craster’s keep and go back to slaughter them – with great savagery, it would seem – he also knows that Bran and company are waiting for Sam at the top of the well at the Nightfort, as Sam tells us in ASOS:
“He said there would be people,” he huffed. “People in the castle. I didn’t know you’d be right at the top of the steps, though.”
Coldhands even knows what is going on south of the Wall, it would seem. Again the choices seem to be that his ravens flew over the Wall to the Nightfort and reported back to Coldhands, or that he has a link to either Bloodraven, or most ambitiously in terms of Coldhands’ power, perhaps he can directly access the weirwoodnet itself.
And don’t forget, the ravens don’t just talk to Coldhands and act as his eyes and ears. They also attack in coordinated fashion with Coldhands when he saves Sam and Gilly from the wights. It’s quite dramatic – they descend on the wights in “angry clouds,” tearing them apart and filling the sky to the point where Sam cannot see the moon. Then one of the ravens tells Sam to go, go, go, and Coldhands appears and whisks them away. This is less conclusive that Coldhands talking to the ravens, because the ravens certainly seem intelligent enough to attack wights on their own, or it could be Bloodraven sending the ravens to attack. However, it fits with all the other Coldhands scenes in which he works together with the ravens and the elk in a highly coordinated fashion, and all of it is very neatly explained by the possibility of Coldhands being a greenseer or a skinchanger. Except that he’s dead.
A final clue about Coldhands having access to magic lies in the fact that Coldhands seems to be able to detect the presence of the wights. At the start of the chapter where Bran, Coldhands, Jojen, Meera, and Hodor fight their way up the hill to enter Bloodraven’s cave, Coldhands reaches the base of the hill and simply announces “they’re here.” It’s almost like he can smell them, but Coldhands has no flowing blood or appetite, and therefore it’s unlikely that he has a functioning olfactory system. There was no raven talking to Coldhands here either, so it wasn’t like he was warned by them. I think the only explanation can be that Coldhands can use magic.
I think the one of the main narrative purposes of Coldhands is to tell us about Jon, and by extension, the last hero. I could be totally wrong about this – maybe he’s Bloodraven’s meat suit after all. Maybe the children are controlling the elk and Coldhands is just a corpse with no magic. But I don’t think so, for all the reason I’ve laid out and for more yet to come. In particular, I return to the argument that it makes no sense for Jon Snow to be resurrected and lose his magic. And if Jon’s going to retain his magic or better yet, gain new magic, that means that resurrected people can do magic. Beric proves it as well when he lights his sword on fire with his own blood. It’s a small magic, but it’s definitely magic. Therefore the idea of Coldhands having access to magic is not only reasonable, it has precedent. And Beric wasn’t even a skinchanger!
Here’s what I think: just as Varamyr’s prologue is there in large part to inform us about what will happen to Jon when he dies, Coldhands is there to show us a bit about what’s going to happen when he’s resurrected. Coldhands is primarily here to show us that a skinchanger can be resurrected and still retain his magic, and that when this happens, what we get is an immortal zombie impervious to cold, hunger, fatigue, and other human failings that can whoop ass on the Others by day or by night.
Did I just say immortal? Well, some qualifications. First, I assume Coldhands can be killed, or re-killed you might say, just as any other wight can be. He stays well away from the fire, as I mentioned. But who knows how long a zombie lives, if undisturbed?
…what is dead, may never die, after all…
…and if a skinchanger’s soul is preserved in its animal and thus is in a more intact state than other souls when it is put back in its body, who’s to say how long the resurrected person can ‘live?’
The famous line about Coldhands’ age comes from Leaf, when she says “they killed him long ago,” seemingly referring to the wights and the Others killing Coldhands long ago. The thinking is that “long ago” to the children of the forest, who live for several centuries, must be long ago indeed. There’s another clue that Coldhands is very, very old which comes when they are forced to butcher the elk, after it finally collapses:
It had been twelve days since the elk collapsed for the third and final time, since Coldhands had knelt beside it in the snowbank and murmured a blessing in some strange tongue as he slit its throat.
That “some strange tongue” is likely to be the Old Tongue. There are some wildlings north of the Wall who speak the Old Tongue, particularly the Thenns, but it is not common at all for a member of the Night’s Watch to speak it… not for thousands of years, at least. Even if it was something other than the Old Tongue – what language would we be talking about? Everyone in Westeros now speaks the common tongue, so whatever the language here that Coldhands is speaking, it is still an indicator of a Coldhands having knowledge that does not belong in modern Westeros.
It’s also worth noting that Coldhands’ behavior here does not speak of being skinchanged by Bloodraven, but rather of having a personal set of beliefs. There’s an elegant, sad beauty to the description of Coldhands kneeling in the snow and uttering a prayer of blessing for his loyal steed as he puts it out of its misery. It seems ritualistic, perhaps consistent with older beliefs about hunters who respect the forest and the animals they take from it that we see in hunter-gatherer societies all around the world. This could be consistent with Coldhands being a green man or simply a First Man in tune with the forest and the mindset of the greenseers, and it is also suggestive of a bond between Coldhands and the elk.
Put it all together, and I think they killed Coldhands very long ago indeed. A greenseer or skinchanger who speaks the Old Tongue, rides a great elk, is attended by flocks of ravens with which he communicates, and who joined the Night’s Watch at some point – Coldhands seems like something from the ancient past. In fact, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Coldhands may literally be eight thousand years old.
Think about it. Even if he has only been a zombie ranger for eight hundred years, or even just eighty years – it indicates that zombies do not wear out on their own, at least not very quickly, when in the frozen North. Aging has to do with cell growth and cell death, but Coldhands is already dead. There is nothing to wear out. The cold magic apparently preserves his body, and if his spirit isn’t fading out like Beric’s because he is a resurrected skinchanger… there is potentially no limit to how old he is.
It’s worth noting that Coldhands seems much more agile than other cold wights as well – in the first Coldhands quote that we pulled, Coldhands “vaulted lightly” off the back of the ten-foot-tall-at-the-shoulder great elk. It’s quite the contrast to the wights, which Sam noted to be clumsy things (though strong and persistent). Coldhands, on the other hands, is limber and lithe, and he also seems a good fighter – he made short work of the rebel Night’s Watch brothers, although he was probably aided by the ravens; and if he fights wights or Others with any regularity and has ‘lived’ to tell the tale… it bodes well for resurrected Jon Snow’s potential physical abilities. I would suggest that something about being a skinchanger is what explains Coldhands’ un-zombie-like physical and mental capabilities and his ability to persist for however long he has.
Think about the possibility of a merged Ghost / Jon spirit returning to Jon’s body – might not resurrected Jon inherit a bit of Ghosts’s quick reflexes or wolfish instinct? Perhaps a resurrected skinchnager created in this way, with a merged human animal sprint, is actually stronger than a regular human. The wights are very strong as it is; perhaps Coldhands has some sort of animal spirit inside him giving him strength or skill. You need every advantage you can get in the cold dead land, after all.
The King of Corn and the Green Monster
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Meera’s gloved hand tightened around the shaft of her frog spear. “Who sent you? Who is this three-eyed crow?”
“A friend. Dreamer, wizard, call him what you will. The last greenseer.” The longhall’s wooden door banged open. Outside, the night wind howled, bleak and black. The trees were full of ravens, screaming. Coldhands did not move.
“A monster,” Bran said.
The ranger looked at Bran as if the rest of them did not exist. “Your monster, Brandon Stark.”
“Yours ,” the raven echoed, from his shoulder. Outside the door, the ravens in the trees took up the cry, until the night wood echoed to the murderer’s song of “Yours, yours, yours.”
“Jojen, did you dream this?” Meera asked her brother. “Who is he? What is he? What do we do now?”
“We go with the ranger,” said Jojen. “We have come too far to turn back now, Meera. We would never make it back to the Wall alive. We go with Bran’s monster, or we die.”
Here in Bran’s first chapter from ADWD, we can really see Martin’s love of horror writing come through – the wind blowing the door open, the tree full of a murder of ravens screaming, Coldhands watching implacably with his black eyes as they realize he’s a walking dead man… yeah. That’s the stuff. In any case, the thing I want to zero in on is Coldhands as Brandon Stark’s monster. Because of the wording, it is initially unclear if Bran is calling Coldhands a monster or the last greenseer a monster, but Jojen makes it clear when he says “we go with Bran’s monster” in response to a question about whether or not they should follow Coldhands. Coldhands belongs to Bran in some sense.
A few people have speculated that this is because of a time loop – Bran at some point went back into the past and helped create Coldhands, something like that. The idea of a greenseer creating a zombie is obviously something I consider a reasonable possibility, but I am generally hesitant to use time travel as a way to explain mysteries in the books. I believe Martin maybe involving a bit of that, but I feel strongly that he’s going to strictly limit the sort of time travel paradoxes more common to science fiction. Basically, it’s something we can’t completely rule out, but it’s also a bottomless can of worms which quickly turns into wild conspiracy and tinfoil which attributes everything that ever happened to time-traveling Bran. My approach is to look for more logical answers that do not involve time travel first, and if and when Martin shows us Bran affecting the past or skinchanging Bran the Builder, we can draw conclusions based on what we see in regards to how limited time travel is in ASOIAF.
So setting aside the time-travel interpretation of Coldhands being Bran’s monster, what could this mean? I think the most logical answer is that Coldhands is bound to the Stark bloodline in some way, and perhaps to Bran in particular if he is some sort of special chosen one. Most people think the last hero was a Stark in some sense, and probably the Night’s King too, so if Coldhands does go back to the time of the founding of the Night’s Watch and the Long Night, he may well have been created by a Stark or had a duty laid upon him to wait for the promised Stark to come along. If anything like this is true, then Coldhands would be like 8,000 years old, which… kinda makes you feel sorry for the guy.
When I look at Coldhands, what I see is someone who is under some sort of eternal obligation, someone who is in a sense condemned to literally wander the frozen lands for hundreds or even thousands of years waiting for Bran Stark to show up, or perhaps guiding the occasional choices for the new ‘greenseer of the north’ to Bloodraven’s cave to assume the position. Recall that Bloodraven was the Lord Commander when he was supposedly lost on a ranging – perhaps Coldhands had a hand in that.
Think about what it would be like to be Coldhands – it would pretty much suck, right? I mean riding the great elk was cool at first, but really, there isn’t a whole lot to keep you busy with north of the Wall. Coldhands has not been seen by any wildlings that we know of, so he must keep a low profile. What is he doing? I mean again they killed him long ago, and even if long ago is only 80 years ago… that’s 80 years of wandering the tundra, staring at snow. And don’t forget, you’re dead. The savor of food, of sex, of laughter and fellowship – all gone. I have to think Coldhands could put himself out of his misery any time by simply walking into a fire. And yet, he doesn’t. Coldhands persists, faithful as ever, solely dedicated to his mission.
To me, this speaks of either sacrifice or punishment on Coldhands’ part. He’s either condemned to this boooorrrring-ass mission as a way of atoning for some great sin, or he’s the most self-sacrificing dude who ever lived. Speaking in terms of atonement, perhaps he is the Night’s King, chastened and humiliated, somehow compelled by guilt or other means to serve out this lonely watch as recompense for his crimes. My big theory about Azor Ahai is that he was a villainous type – he broke the moon when he forged Lightbringer, according to the legend, and I believe this was responsible for meteors which caused the Long Night. Perhaps that’s who Coldhands is – Azor Ahai the fallen, penitent zombie. I have speculated that Azor Ahai may have even become the Night’s King himself – I’m by no means sold on that, but their symbolism overlaps in some areas and Stannis seems to be impersonating both of them at once, a possible clue about Azor Ahai becoming the Night’s King…. any maybe that’s who Coldhands is.
It’s hard to say for sure without more information, but Coldhands’ current mission could be consistent with someone who has brought low and made to atone for their evil deeds, and the two likely suspects in that scenario would the Night’s King or Azor Ahai. This idea of atonement also fits into the larger theme of the Night’s Watch itself – in fact it is the theme of the Night’s Watch, as they are exiled criminals who atone for their sins by guarding the realms of men. Coldhands has kind of taken this duty to the next level.
The other possibility here is sacrifice, and that’s actually the one I want to focus on. Essentially, if Coldhands is not on his crappy, cold mission because of some evil he himself committed, then he is absolutely making a sacrifice of himself. He’s given up almost everything it means to be human for his eternal, lonely ranging. In this case, he might be connected to the last hero – either the last hero himself or one of his party of O.G. Night’s Watch brothers – because there are thematic clues about the last hero being something of a sacrifice, and because self-sacrifice is perhaps the ultimate in heroic virtue. Jon and Bran are the two characters who parallel the last hero most closely, and both have obviously sacrificed a lot, and probably are not done sacrificing either.
The fact that Coldhands keeps the scarf over his mouth and speaks with a raspy voice could indicate that Coldhands’ has a neck or throat wound of some kind, consistent with a sacrifice. Jon takes a throat wound as well, it should be noted. It’s the classic way to sacrifice animals or even people, as we see in Bran’s weirwoodnet vision of human sacrifice at Winterfell.
In fact, George has made a fairly direct allusion to Jon Snow as a ‘corn king,’ which is a term used to describe the very common mythological archetype of a sacrificed male god or king whose death brings about the turning of the seasons – typically they are sacrificed in the autumn, mimicking the death of the leaves and greenery, and are resurrected in the spring, bringing with them the return of fertility and fecundity. The corn king concept is very important to understand if we want to know what is going on with zombies and resurrection, and with Jon and the last hero and quite possibly Coldhands. That is why George gives us a direct reference to it, one of the most direct shout-outs to external mythology anywhere in ASOIAF. It comes in ADWD, out of the mouth of Mormont’s raven:
He rose and dressed in darkness, as Mormont’s raven muttered across the room. “Corn,” the bird said, and, “King,” and “Snow, Jon Snow, Jon Snow,” That was queer. The bird had never said his full name before, as best Jon could recall.
Jon’s Snow’s corn king status is pretty straightforward – Jon is the corn king whose death and resurrection will hopefully turn the seasons and bring the end of the Long Night, which seems to be about to fall. His death comes right as winter falls, and of course we hope his resurrection will bring a dream of spring. Before we go any farther with this line of analysis, I just want to stress how heavy a bit of foreshadowing this is: George is telegraphing to us that Jon will be resurrected and that that resurrection will help to bring the spring. I mean it’s not a big shocker – most people think Jon is a hero, the special Snowflake – but as corn king, he’s a specific type of hero who is defined by the death and rebirth cycle.
Another role of the corn king is to promote the fertility of the land – his death is a sacrifice which literally causes the earth to be fertile so it can feed the people. That’s something of the role Jon plays with the wildlings in ADWD, where he lets them through the Wall to find food and shelter – and this quote with the raven saying ‘corn king Jon Snow‘ is in fact the beginning of that chapter. The act of feeding the wildlings is the very act he is killed for, so he is indeed sacrificing himself to feed thousands of people. Earlier in ADWD, in the chapter where Jon is laying out his plans to let the wildlings through, the raven also says “Corn. King,” though without Jon’s name added on just yet. In other words, it’s no coincidence the two ‘corn king’ references come in conjunction with Jon’s act of feeding the wildlings… and thus eventually sacrificing himself.
As you can see, the last hero could very easily be a corn king figure, since he brought about the turning of the seasons after they had been a bit stuck for a while, particularly if he died in the process as I am proposing. As a matter of fact, there is big giant flaming red clue encouraging us to associate Jon’s corn king status with the last hero and Azor Ahai – that’s really why I brought this up in the first place. That chapter where Jon lets the wildlings through the Wall, the one where the raven says “corn king Jon Snow,” well, it actually begins with Jon’s Azor Ahai dream, the one where he is defending the Wall alone against the forces of the north which include dead men who scuttle up the ice like spiders, armored in black ice with his Valyrian steel blade burning red in his fist.
This dream is remarkable because it foreshadows Jon’s impending role as some kind of Azor Ahai reborn figure – he has a burning red sword, and later in the dream, he slays his love, Ygritte, just as Azor Ahai slew Nissa Nissa. But it’s also remarkable because it unites the roles of Azor Ahai with that of the last hero – Jon is the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, abandoned and alone, fighting the forces of the North, which parallels the idea of the last hero’s companions, dog, and horse dying while he sought for ways to defeat the Others in the cold dead lands.
The potential implication is clear – Azor Ahai and the last hero might be the same person, or closely linked to one another. At the very least, we already know they are parallel legends, stories of a hero who fought of the darkness of the Long Night with a magic sword. So what we have here is Jon dreaming of being some combination of Azor Ahai and the last hero, then waking to be labelled a corn king as goes about doing corn king things, feeding the people and eventually getting himself killed. Most importantly, the corn king’s resurrection brings the spring, just like the last hero and Azor Ahai did in ancient day, and just as our Azor Ahai reborn characters like Jon and Dany are expected to do.
This is why I say it’s critical to understand the basics of the corn king – because George has based his Long Night savior figures at least in part on the various corn king figures in world mythology. As an aside, I will just tell you that there are many, many myths and legends based around the turning of the seasons, and since George has chosen to make the cycle of the seasons a focal point of his world building and storyline, he is in fact incorporating elements of many of these world myths, of which the corn king ideas are but one. Another great one is tale of the abducted moon maiden Persephone, and you can read all about that on my friend sweetsunray’s blog, Mythological Weave of Ice and Fire.
All this corn king stuff might seem like a bit of a side-track from zombies, but it’s actually just the opposite – this is the deeper context in which we must think about resurrected people in the story, particularly Jon and my idea of the zombie last hero. Usually a corn king figure is reborn afresh in the spring, however, George has given us a literally resurrected corn king instead. Using a zombie in place of the reborn corn king is a kind of a dark twist on the classic tale, but then, that’s George R. R. Martin. Instead of looking for a hero to save us from the zombie apocalypse, we are actually looking for a zombie hero to save us from the apocalypse. We need Ghost-Jon, the King of Corn.
So the corn king relates to zombies and Jon Snow and the last hero; does it relate to Coldhands, Brandon Stark’s monster? I believe it does, whether or not he is the last hero or one of the last hero’s party. We mentioned the possibility that Coldhands is a green man – an undead one, of course – due to the connection of elk riding and generally being a protector of the forest. Well, the green men are based on a particular type of corn king, the archetype known as the “horned god” whose examples include the Celtic Cerrunos, the English Herne the Hunter, the ubiquitous Green Man (who sometimes has branches on his head in place of horns), the Greek Pan, and many others. As far away as India we find him – his name in the Rig Veda is Pashupati, a testament to the proto-indo-european roots of the horned nature god idea. All of these figures have horns or antlers or sometimes branches on their heads, some have green skin or some kind of leafy decoration, they all have something to do with the spirit of male virility and fertility, they are usually thought of as “solar” deities, they all bring fertility to the land and act as protectors of the wood and of nature. Many can speak with animals. Most of all, they are killed and resurrected to bring about the turning of the seasons, because what they are is more or less a personification of the cycle of nature
Essentially, the stag-man is a forest-centric version of the corn king. There are other forest-dwelling or fertility based corn kings which match up most or all of this, but do not have the horns, such as Jack in the Green, Jon Barleycorn, the green-skinned Egyptian death and resurrection god Osiris, who is also a corn god, the Greek Dionysus (who is followed by satyrs, which are always some kind of goat-horned human).
As you can see, some of that is consistent with the little we know of the Sacred Order of Green Men, who are said to have antlers on their heads, green skin or green clothing, and who are said to keep eternal watch over the Isle of Faces. I mean the green man is pretty famous, whose green, leafy face can be found decorating cathedrals and old buildings all over Europe, so calling these folks “green men” is basically not all that subtle. The children of the forest wears vines and leaves, and they certainly seem to have a strong connection to the green men on the Isle of Faces.
Like the rest of the corn king lore, the horned god ideas are also consistent with the idea of a last hero who is resurrected to end the Long Night and bring the spring. Said another way, both the last hero and the green men seem to be drawing from related mythology, and this has to make us wonder about a connection between the last hero and the green men. I would suggest that Coldhands may be the confluence of these ideas. I believe he is at the very least a prototype for making a last hero, a skinchanger zombie, and he reminds Bran, and us, of the green men in certain ways. Coldhands rides his elk and keeps eternal watch over the frozen north kind of like a green man exiled to the frozen dead lands.
The entire thing is like an twisted version of the story of the fertility god wandering a fertile land; Coldhands is like a corpse version of a fertility god wandering the cold and almost-dead lands. He still protects the woods that remain, however, and is obviously in communion with the animals that remain as well. He’s also dedicated to fighting the Others, so we know he is still on team green, deep down. This is actually pretty close to the English folktale of Herne the Hunter, a ghost version of the horned god who rides a horse and guards the woods in spectral form. In fact, if Martin is intending Coldhands to play into the green man / horned god ideas as I propose, then Herne the Hunter is the figure we should look to – he’s the clearly undead version of the horned god.
Besides being dead, Herne is associated with midnight and winter, which is another good match for Coldhands. If Coldhands’s mission is one of atonement as we speculated a moment ago, this would be highly consistent with Herne the Hunter, whose tale has him committing some great sin and then hanging himself from an oak for fear of shame and disgrace, only to become a ghostly guardian of the woods after his death. I mentioned before that Coldhands may have a neck or throat injury based on the scarf he wears and his voice – the exact description was “his voice rattled in his throat, as thin and gaunt and he was.” Coldhands is dead, so it makes sense his voice would ‘rattle,’ like a death rattle, and it could be yet another match for Herne and his strangulation form the oak tree. Finally, we know Martin is thinking about Herne the Hunter, because Herne gets a clear shout-out in the form of a Westerosi legend about a pair of brothers called Harlon the Hunter and Herdon of the Horne who took to wife a woodswitch and built the castle at Horn Hill in the Reach. That’s why their descendants, House Tarly, have a striding huntsman, red on green, as their sigil. Naturally, the first person to meet Coldhands, our Herne the Hunter impressionist, is Samwell Tarly – it’s almost like he is meeting his ancient ancestor. And the first word Coldhands says to Sam is “brother!”
Party on, Garth… Party on, Bobby B
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There’s actually an even more prominent allusion to Cerrunos and his horned cousins than the green men in ASOIAF, and it too is specifically associated with the theme of sacrificing the horned god to turn the seasons, and therefore may have something to do with the last hero and the Long Night. Here I speak of Garth the Green, the legendary founding father of many lineages in the Reach (and perhaps even the Starks, according to some tales). He’s also called Garth Greenhand, or Garth Greenhair, or the Green God, and much like the Green Men, he too is thought in some tales to have a stag’s antlers on his head, as well as green skin. He is actually a perfect incarnation of the horned god, causing maidens and the land alike to be fertile and fruitful in an almost over-the-top way – Garth is said to have made even barren women or old crones fertile with a touch.
Garth’s royal line of Gardener kings wore crowns of vines and flowers and sat in a living tree throne called the Oakenseat, which supposedly grew from an oak Garth the Green himself planted. To me, that sounds suspiciously like greenseer activity. The Oakenseat was destroyed in the ancient past, so we have no way of knowing the truth of the matter, but the general idea of a living wooden throne certainly has our attention. Garth also supposedly planted the three intertwined weirwoods in the godswood at Highgarden known as “The Three Singers,” which is a clue linking Garth to greenseers and their magic. Garth is referred to as a god in some tales, and in TWOIAF we read that:
A few of the oldest tales of Garth Greenhand present us with a considerably darker deity, one who demanded blood sacrifice from his worshippers to ensure a bountiful harvest. In some stories the green god dies every autumn when the trees lose their leaves, only to be reborn with the coming of spring. This version of Garth is largely forgotten.
This version of Garth this largely consistent with the horned god archetype, is what he is. He’s a signature corn king, proving beyond a doubt that the horned god and corn king mythology is woven into the fiber of the story. We can’t help but notice that Garth is more or less indistinguishable from the green men and wonder if perhaps Garth was a green man, or if perhaps the green men descend from him. The stories of both Garth the Green and the Sacred Order of Green Men are dated back to the time before the Long Night, so they could well be connected.
The corn king idea of sacrificing and resurrecting Garth to turn the seasons, given to us so clearly here, causes us to wonder again if Garth and the green men have some connection to the last hero. The story of Garth’s sacrifice and resurrection may be telling us a story about horned people having something to do with ending the Long Night – specifically, a story about horned people being sacrificed to help end the Long Night.
My notion of skinchanger zombies fits nicely here, explaining just how human sacrifice might actually lead to the capability to defeat the Others. Instead of sacrificing humans to harvest their magic as we have seen elsewhere, this could have been more like volunteerism – green men volunteering to become skinchanger zombies. Elsewise, someone might have raised green men slain in battle with the Others. If Coldhands were to be a green man, his origin story might be something along these lines.
In fact… we just talked about Sam Tarly’s ancestors, Herndon of the Horne and Harlon the Hunter, as a clear shout-out to Herne the Hunter, but what I didn’t mention is that in TWOIAF, we learn that Herndon and Harlon were one of the “twelve notable descendants” of Garth the Green. That’s right, the Herne the Hunter ideas which fit Coldhands so well are directly tied to an ancestry from Garth the Green, the horned god who is sacrificed to turn the seasons. Herne the Hunter was also associated with a particular oak tree, called “Herne’s Oak,” just as garth was associated with a specific oak tree, the Oakenseat. My my my. Finally and somewhat humorously, we find that the greatest Gardener King in the history of the Reach was named Garth Goldenhand. Much ado is made about “hands of gold are always cold,” if you recall, so perhaps George is making a hands of gold / hands of cold joke here if Coldhands is descended from Garth or the Green men. Golden hands comes from Garth, in other words, so perhaps Coldhands does too.
There might be a clue about a connection between green men and the last hero to be found in the idea of Bran the Builder having possibly descended from Garth the Green. Another one of those twelve notable children of Garth the Green is someone called “Brandon of the Bloody Blade,” who according to some legends in the Reach may be an ancestor of Brandon the Builder. It’s all very old folktale and legend of course, but the suggestion here is of a connection between House Stark and Garth the Green, who might have been a green man. If the last hero was a Stark, he may be descended of the green men too. We’ll have more to say about his in part 2 of our zombie extravaganza, where will we will have a look at the myth of the King of Winter.
In fact, many of the Houses of the Reach and even the Lannisters are thought to descend from Garth, and thus potentially from green men. If only we knew what green men are! Are they closer to humans, children of the forest, or something else entirely? Do they really have horns on their head like a satyr or a stag man, or just very creative hats? Or are they perhaps skinchangers who ride elk, like Coldhands? Could they have been some of the first First Men to whom the children taught their magic?
If I were to try to narrow it down a bit, I would say that they are probably not children, or else they wouldn’t use the word “men” to them. If they are a cousin to the children, a different type of elf species, perhaps taller, that would really be something. I really want to believe in some sort of awesome Cerrunos-like beings, but the more conservative or skeptical option would be that the green men are human skinchangers or greenseers. However, the idea that they have lived essentially isolated and self-sufficient on the Isle of Faces for 8,000 years or more would make a bit more sense if they were long-lived beings like the children who did not breed very often or in large numbers.
Here’s the thing: memories of the stag-man are to be found all throughout Westeros, even as far north as the lands beyond the Wall! As Jon is letting the wildlings through the Wall, doing his corn king thing, he sees the fearsome men of the frozen shore riding bone chariots with hounds as big as dire wolves – a bad lot, those, Tormund says – and we get these lines:
Some of the men wore antlers on their hats, and some wore walrus tusks. The two sorts did not love each other, he soon gathered.
It could be nothing, or it could be something done in memory of horned green men. Additionally, there was a wildling King Beyond the Wall in ancient day called “the Horned Lord.” He led an attack on Westeros, allegedly using sorcery to pass by the Wall. He’s also the guy who gave us the famous ASOIAF-truism “sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it,” so it seems that the “Horned Lord” was associated with sorcery and magic, which is consistent with the idea of the green men being able to use magic. The Wildlings named a constellation after him, The Horned Lord (which is called “the Stallion” in Westeros), so he must have been an important dude… or perhaps the idea of horned lords was important, and he was just playing into a powerful idea which already existed.
The wildlings live in something of a cultural time capsule north of the Wall, so any cultural beliefs they have in common with people from Westeros proper most likely originated before the Wall was built. The horned lord ideas fit this pattern – they are found in the very oldest legends from the Reach, and so even though the Reach is very far away from the Frozen Shore, this could be one of the old First Men cultural ideas carried over into wildling culture, dating back to a time before the Wall cut off the wildlings from the rest of Westeros. That’s about the approximate time when the Sacred Order of Green Men was established and when Garth was said to live.
By the way, “The Horned Lord” is also the particular name that practitioners of Wicca use to name their version of the horned god – the full title is “the Horned Lord of Death and Resurrection” – so we can see that what George is doing is referencing various types of horned gods and corn kings in various places… and there’s more to come!
Now if Coldhands or the last hero is connected to the green men, it could mean the green men actually came north and left a more direct impression on the people there. Osha the wildling does say that the children and the giants “and the other old races” are still alive north of the Wall, and we know she is right about children and giants. Other old races? Could these include green men?
Of course, we’ve actually been seeing horned folk front and center from day one – or at least, people who have a strong recollection of horned folk. I mean, it’s a fact that somebody with antlers on their head sure made a big impression on the Durrandon Storm Kings, who have been wearing antlered helms and antlered crowns for thousands of years. The Storm Lords of House Baratheons picked up this habit when Orys Baratheon defeated the last Storm King Argilac Durrandon, took his daughter to wife, and took on all the trappings of the Storm Kings. That’s why we see Robert and Renly gallopping around in antlered helms, and why Stannis has a black stag in his sigil. Renly goes further, wearing green armor – he’s called “the green knight” when he is first introduced to us in AGOT.
Where did they get this image? The Stormlanders don’t have any references to Garth the Green in their folklore, but they have the same taste in headgear, it would seem. And they are definitely cut from the same mythological cloth: Martin hangs an allusion to the horned god mythology on Robert in AGOT as Ned lies delirious in the dungeons of King’s Landing:
He found himself thinking of Robert more and more. He saw the King as he had been in the flower of his youth, tall and handsome, his great antlered helm on his head, his warhammer in hand, sitting his horse like a horned god. He heard his laughter in his eyes, blue and clear as mountain lakes.
The idea of sacrificing the horned god at the end of summer is present with the Baratheons too, as Robert and Renly are both associated with being summer kings who are sacrificed as winter draws close. Robert’s reign consists of a long summer and he comes to Winterfell talking of the rich fertility of the south, from the food to the wine to the women – a scene which is broken down in detail by sweetsunray in her chthonic cycle essays. Robert is also mimicking the fertility aspect of Garth and the horned god, spreading his royal oats everywhere he can. Meanwhile, Renly’s warriors are literally dubbed “the knights of summer” by Catelyn, and Renly’s armor is described thusly before he is killed: “a deep green, the green of leaves in a summer wood, so dark it drank the candlelight.” That’s a nice way of evoking summer while also perhaps foreshadowing something darker. This description also associates Renly the green knight with the woods… just where a green man belongs.
Robert’s and Renly’s deaths are, of course, both laden with appropriate symbolism. Just before he is killed by the boar, Robert is hunting a white hart – a stag – in the Kingwood. The idea of hunting the symbol of your own house symbolizes Robert’s own self-destruction, which he achieved by getting himself too drunk to survive the encounter with the boar and by essentially ignoring the ills of the kingdom and outsourcing the duty of governance irresponsibly. Ned remarks on this upon leaving Robert’s death chamber, saying:
“Even the truest knight cannot protect a king against himself.”
Robert aims to sacrifice a stag and becomes the sacrificed stag himself, in other words. After he does, summer is over, the good times are over, and everyone starts dying, burning and starving. Robert was also wearing green clothing – his hunting greens – when he was wounded, and wore them until his death.
Renly’s death is even more apropos of the horned god, because he is slashed across the throat like a sacrifice right at the the moment that he is putting on his green armor and antlered helm. All the lights gutter out, and Renly’s last word is “cold…” which could be to put us in mind of the end of summer and the Long Night, the appropriate time to sacrifice the horned god. Similarly, as Robert lay dying in a very warm room, he says “Gods, why is it so cold in here,” and of course Jon the corn king never felt the fourth knife, only the cold; so this looks like a depiction of winter’s onset at the death of the horned god or corn king, as the legend demands.
Adding to this imagery, Catelyn thinks to herself in the aftermath of Renly’s murder that “Death came in that door and blew the life out of him as swift as the wind snuffed out his candles,” which is a nice way to tie Renly’s death to the fall of an evil darkness. He was killed by a shadow-being with a “shadowsword,” after all. Recall his armor being a green so dark it drank the candle light – everything about this death scene is associated with snuffing out light and bringing darkness. Recall also that the stag man is typically a solar character – note that Renly is all green and gold – so killing the sun is implied here anyway just by killing the stag man. And killing the sun, of course, is more or less the theme of the Long Night.
This is one of my favorite scenes in the books, as dark as it is, because the way Martin worked the sacrifice of the horned god scene into his fiction here is absolutely stupendous. This is a scene that people alive on earth four thousand years ago would understand in a visceral, intrinsic way, and that’s not an overstatement.
The Baratheons are proving to be excellent horned gods so far, and don’t think resurrection is left out of the mix – oh no, not by a long shot. See, I told you this green man / horned god stuff had something to do with zombies! Here is Robert’s death scene, from AGOT:
“By rights, he should be dead already. I have never seen a man cling to life so fiercely.”
“My brother was always strong,” Lord Renly said. “Not wise, perhaps, but strong.” In the sweltering heat of the bedchamber, his brow was slick with sweat. He might have been Robert’s ghost as he stood there, young and dark and handsome. “
It’s almost like Renly is showing us Robert’s ghost leaving his dying body and standing over his own corpse. And in ACOK, after Robert is safely in the grave, we get this description of King Renly from Catelyn when she finds him holding a tourney on the road to King’s Landing:
In their midst, watching and laughing with his young queen by his side, sat a ghost in a golden crown. Small wonder the lords gather around him with such fervor, she thought, he is Robert come again.
So twice now we have seen Renly called a ghostly version of Robert the Horned God, and here in this quote he is specifically associated with a resurrected Robert. He’s a ghostly, resurrected horned god, just the fellow we are after. He even allies with Highgarden, the former seat of Garth’s royal line of Gardener Kings, now ruled by House Tyrell, and his stag crown is worked in the colors of Highgarden to symbolize his union with Margarie Tyrell. In other words, the ghostly green resurrected horned god Renly is specifically tied back to Garth by his union with Highgarden.
Best of all, after Renly dies in his “emerald castle,” he himself is “resurrected,” in a manner of speaking. You’ll recall that Garlan Tyrell dons Renly’s green antlered armor at the Battle of the Blackwater and saves the day masquerading as Renly’s Ghost. Davos hears the story of the end of the battle in ASOS:
“The Lannisters had taken him from the flank, and his fickle bannermen had abandoned him by the hundreds in the hour of his greatest need. “King Renly’s shade was seen as well,” the captain said, “slaying right and left as he led the lion lord’s van. It’s said his green armor took a ghostly glow from the wildfire, and his antlers ran with golden flames.”
Alright, that’s cool, now he really is a resurrected green horned god. And consider who is in side the armor: Garlan, a Tyrell whose name is derivative of Garth (Garlan, Garth). This simply adds to the horned god symbolism and anchors resurrected Renly back to Garth the Green once again. It also implies using skinchanging to bodysnatch, like Bran does with Hodor, as we have one person wearing another’s “skin” and masquerading as them. That could be trouble. But what’s with those fiery golden antlers? Is this going to turn into an Azor Ahai thing again?
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This is Ser Dontos recounting the tale of resurrected Renly to Sansa in ACOK:
They plunged through Stannis like a lance through a pumpkin, every man of them howling like some demon in steel. And do you know who led the vanguard? Do you? Do you? Do you? ”
“Robb?” It was too much to be hoped, but …
“It was Lord Renly! Lord Renly in his green armor, with the fires shimmering off his golden antlers! Lord Renly with his tall spear in his hand! They say he killed Ser Guyard Morrigen himself in single combat, and a dozen other great knights as well. It was Renly, it was Renly, it was Renly! Oh! the banners, darling Sansa! Oh! to be a knight!”
A fiery warrior leading an army of demons conforms very well with my interpretation of Azor Ahai as a villain who brought on the Long Night. Most importantly, this resurrected burning stag man which Renly has become is simply a mimicking of the burning stag symbolism of Stannis, who is of course playing the role of Azor Ahai. There’s actually a clever pun to be found in Stannis’s sigil, because a stag can also be called a hart, and therefore his sigil is actually saying the same thing in two different ways: it’s a fiery hart, and a fiery heart. It’s clever wordplay, to be sure, but it’s sending us a very, very important message – the burning stag man fiery hart is intrinsically connected to the fiery heart of R’hllor, symbol of fire magic and Azor Ahai.
The image that Renly and Stannis are showing us is a fiery horned lord version of Azor Ahai, but one who is a corpse in some sense. Again I say this makes perfect sense in terms of mythology – the Azor Ahai and Last Hero stories are all about the fixing the broken cycle of the seasons, and that’s exactly what horned god and corn king mythology is about – turning the seasons. The horned god does this by dying and being resurrected, and thus we see all of this resurrection and zombie action around the last hero and Azor Ahai. Now that we have a better idea of what the stag-man implies, we can see that this is another clue about Garth and / or the green men being wrapped up in this whole Azor Ahai / last hero / ending the Long Night business.
I believe that’s also why George makes such a big deal of the dragon’s horns, even showing us musical horns made from dragon horns, just as other animals’ horns are. Azor Ahai is strongly tied to dragons, and so I think the idea of Azor Ahai the fiery horned lord basically overlaps with the idea of a horned dragon person.
George is also taking advantage of the fact that the modern Christian image of Satan as a goat horned or goat-legged devil is essentially a corrupted version of the classical horned god idea, and this was done primarily as a way to tarnish pagan religions with evil in the eye of believers. Eli Levi’s baphomet, created in 1855, is another example of a darker, more occult twist on the horned god archetype, and I believe George is dipping into some of this mythology to create Azor Ahai. Baphomet is actually not as nefarious as he looks, and there’s a lot of interesting ideas there about balance between male and female, higher awareness, knowledge, and learning. That’s a subject which we shall have to expand on another time, but it’s useful to point out that there is plenty of precedent for a darker or even demonic version of the horned god, as we see with Stannis and resurrected Renly (and there are plenty of references to Stannis worshipping a demon god as well to complement this idea).
Returning to that scene from the Battle of the Blackwater we just quoted, we have last hero symbolism! Consider the deeds of fiery resurrected Renly – he slew Guyard Morrigen in single combat and a dozen other great knights. Guyard is leading a group of twelve, plus one, just like the last hero and his twelve. Guyard himself would be the last hero then, and his symbolism lines up. He is called Guyard the Green, a former member of Renly’s own rainbow guard, meaning that he’s a green knight too, like Renly was before he was killed. House Morrigen’s castle in the Stormlands is named Crow’s Nest, and their sigil is a black crow in flight on storm green.
In other words, Guyard is a green knight and a black crow who leads a group of twelve like the last hero, very suggestive of a green man joining the Night’s Watch and becoming a crow last hero. Unfortunately, the last hero dies, oh no! What to do! Time to make a green man zombie.
At this point, the idea of Coldhands being an undead green man isn’t looking so far-fetched, huh?
This grouping of twelve things being led by a thirteenth thing is what I like to call ‘last hero math’ – Guyard is a great knight, worth of Renly’s Rainbow Guard, and his died along with a dozen other ‘great knights.’ This math is always around the last hero character in a given metaphor, as we see with Guyard the Green in this battle. We see the same thing thing when Renly is playing the role of green man to be sacrificed – you’ll recall the line from that scene “Death came in that door and blew the life out of him as swift as the wind snuffed out his candles.” By ‘his candles,’ Cat is referring to the twelve iron braziers in Renly’s tent which transformed it into an “emerald castle, alive with light.” Renly’s death is specifically likened to the snuffing out of a candle, and then compared to twelve other candles, so it’s the same thing – a group of twelve, lead by a thirteenth, who all die. As a further reading exercise, look for any example you can find of twelve things with a thirteenth thing that is somehow set apart. The word “dozen” is thrown around a lot, but it’s that extra thirteenth thing which makes the pattern.
So, Guyard and Renly are both playing the role of green man last hero when they die, surrounded by a dozen companion of a sort. Who kills the last hero? It’s the same person in both scenes – someone playing the role of a demonic, undead Azor Ahai. You’ll recall that it was Stannis’s shadow, complete with a shadowsword version of lightbringer, who murdered Renly when Renly was playing the role of green man. Guyard the Green is killed by resurrected Renly, a fiery horned god with a demonic host who, again, is just mimicking the burning stag symbolism of Stannis, a clear Azor Ahai symbol.
What does this tell us? Well, Azor Ahai and the last hero seem to be fighting or killing each other, and there might be some kind of cycle going on, because we see Renly play both roles, a last hero being sacrificed and an undead Azor Ahai killing the last hero. I have proposed that the connection between Azor Ahai and the last hero might have been a father-son or brother-brother relationship, and an adversarial one at that where the one opposes the other, which might be what we are seeing here.
Robert’s death actually plays into the pattern of the green horned man being killed by a horned Azor Ahai too – he’s wearing green when he dies, and he is killed by a “black devil” of a boar which Robert says must’ve been sent by the gods to punish him. Azor Ahai the wild boar? One thinks of TV-show Renly’s joke about Azor Ahai’s smoke and salt making him sound like roast ham, and chuckle all you want (it’s a good joke), but the key thing here is the idea of the “black devil sent by the gods” killing the green man, with the boar’s tusk being similar to a horn.
House Morrigen from which Guyard hails is a great example of how George uses the sigils and history of each House to support important metaphors in the story. The entire history of House Morrigen is built around this moment when Guyard plays the last hero in a metaphor, a black and green crow leading group of twelve, only to be killed by an Azor Ahai figure. To whit: the only two historical members of House Morrigen that we know of get killed by things which symbolize Azor Ahai – dragons and people who are the blood of the dragon. Dickon Morrigen was killed by Queen Rhaenys’s dragon Meraxes at the battle known as “The Last Storm.” That’s also where Argilac, the last of the Durrandon Storm Kings, met his fate, reinforcing the metaphor of a dying stag man at that scene. Argilac was in turn slain by a dragon-blooded person, the Targaryen bastard Orrys Baratheon, who then became a stag man himself… only, he would be a dragon-stag man at that point.
Then we have a Morrigen who left his name behind to become Ser Damon the Devout of the Warrior’s Sons, only to be killed in a trial of the seven going against Maegor I Targaryen, called Maegor the Cruel. All together, we have three dead crows of House Morrigen, killed by demonic fiery stag Renly, actual golden dragon Meraxes, and the most monstrous Targaryen in history, Maegor the Cruel. All of this history only serves to reinforce the idea that the last hero is apparently supposed to be killed by Azor Ahai.
But here’s the important part – the last hero is famous for winning, not losing. All of these scenes with the green man last hero being butchered signaled a loss for their side – they are not heroic sacrifices to achieve victory. I believe the answer is simple: the death of the last hero is merely one of the first steps in his quest to end the Long Night. According to my theory, the last hero has to die so he can become a skinchanger zombie, and only then is when he can face the others and end the Long Night. It’s the resurrection of the horned god and the corn king that bring the spring.
In fact, what best describes what we are seeing here with a horned Azor Ahai killing the green last hero is a cycle of two horned gods killing one another, and that’s no accident. Some versions of the horned god see him as a pair of brothers or a father and son who kill each other every six months – the most famous version of this is the Oak and Holly King. You could write a whole essay on those two, but the point is that they are like two aspects of the same god, and yet also like rival brothers, with the Holly King representing winter and the Oak King summer. Their cycle of fraternal deicide is yet another depiction of the cycle of the seasons by means of a dying god.
It plays out nicely with Stannis and Renly – fiery, demonic Stannis kills green Renly, and then fiery “resurrected Renly” returns with a host of steel demons to defeat Stannis’s forces at the Battle of the Blackwater. It goes both ways, too – Robert the Horned God killed the dragon man, Rhaegar, on the Trident. Robert was called the “demon of the trident however,” so the green horned people can be demons too. At the Blackwater, the wildfire unleashed by Tyrion – who is on the same side as resurrected Renly – was called the “jade demon” which seemed to have hands and whips of green fire, which is the same idea. All of this points towards a cycle, with both types of horned gods being killed and resurrected. It’s ASOIAF, folks: everyone dies. The important part is that a lot of things rise harder and stronger afterward.
I’ll have more to say about this idea of rival horned gods in the future, but for now the thing to take away here is that the last hero and Azor Ahai are both tied to this collective horned god mythology, and that the events which surrounded their deaths and resurrections seem to be right at the heart of the story of the Long Night and the War for the Dawn.
To sum up what we’ve just learned, we can see that Martin is working the theme of the horned god and the corn king in to the story in several intertwined ways. The idea of the turning of the seasons being personified as a dying and resurrected fertility god is a natural match for Martin’s world, where the turning of the seasons is kind of a big fucking deal, to quote Joe Biden. It make sense to align the sacrificed fertility god who is resurrected to bring the spring with characters who undergo a death and resurrection process in the process of bringing an end to the Long Night such as the last hero and presumably Jon Snow. While it’s not conclusive, Coldhands does seem to fit into this line of symbolism as well, which is why I think he might be a green man, or one of the last hero’s party or both, and at the very least, a resurrected skinchanger or greenseer who ranges the haunted forest.
So what about those twelve companion of the Last Hero? What about the original brothers of the Night’s Watch? Could they have been zombies too?
But of course… But we are out of time for today, so in three days this topic will rise from the dead and give birth to another podcast, titled “Sacred order of Green Zombies 2: The Undead Night’s Watch. It’s already written and recorded, and was original part of this script, but instead of releasing a three-hour plus podcast, I took out my zombie-slaying sword and cut it in twain. Part 2 will actually be a lot shorter, so look out for that by moonrise on the third day.
I originally set out to write about zombie skinchangers only, not green men, but I kept running into green men and horned god references, as you’ve seen, and there are more yet to come in the next episode . I even tried to split it into a zombie episode and a green men episode, but there was no keeping them separate – their spirits had co-mingled too long. As I said, I believe the resurrected fertility god ideas are the lens through which we must view Jon’s resurrection and impending zombie-hood, and the context in which we must understand the last hero and the problem of ending the long night. And that’s why I’ve given you my thoughts on zombies and the last hero AND the Sacred Order of Green Men at the same time – because they belong together.
See you in three days, and if any crows ask you for corn, don’t give them any.
As always, a deep debt of gratitude is owed to our Patreon supporters who fuel the fires of Mythical Astronomy. We’ve started having pre-episode chats on the topics for upcoming podcasts and it’s been a lot of fun, so that’s one of the things you can look forward to if you choose to join our patreon campaign. As always, thanks to Animals as Leaders for providing the music to our show – their new album The Madness of Many just came out, and it’s awesome, of course, so go check it out. A huge thank you to Martin Lewis, who did the vocal performances podcast version of this episode, with an assist from the Amethyst Koala. Martin is currently performing chapters from the first novel, A Game of Thrones, on his Facebook page, “Echoes of Ice and Fire,” so check that out, and you will recognize him from our joint podcast with History of Westeros on the Great Empire of the Dawn, which he did the vocals for as well.