King of Winter, Lord of Death

Well it’s been three days, and here we are, back from the dead for more zombie talk.   We’re pretty much going to pick up where we left off discussing the ways in which the horned god, green man, and corn king mythology is woven in ASOIAF in regards to the last hero, Azor Ahai, and ending the Long Night.  I am going to confess to you right now that even though I said, “oh there will be one more short episode to follow up on this,” that turns out not to be the case.  Yes, I unfortunately have to break the news to you that this episode isn’t all that short, and it isn’t the last green zombie episode.  This one will focus on the King of Winter, and the third one, soon to follow, will be about the Night’s Watch.As we saw last time, the essence of the resurrected fertility god is the symbolic link between death and resurrection and the cycle of the seasons.  These resurrected nature deities are simply a personification of the way the seasons turn, with their death coming in the fall and their rebirth in the spring – in fact, their rebirth usually brings the return of spring.  The mission of the last hero and / or Azor Ahai was exactly this: to turn the seasons, after they had become stuck in the winter phase, and therefore, Azor Ahai and the last hero are very much a symbolic match to these resurrected fertility god mythologies.  The Morningstar-related mythology of “lightbringer” or a “light which brings the dawn” overlaps very well with the nature god idea of bringing spring – particularly when the Long Night is defined a prolonged winter and a prolonged darkness.  We need to bring the light and the spring, in other words, so the idea of a resurrected nature god figure wielding Lightbringer actually makes a great deal of sense.


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Accordingly, we have found several characters who seem to conflate Azor Ahai and last hero symbolism with horned god, green man, and greenseer ideas, such as Stannis, Renly, Beric, Bloodraven, and Jon Snow.  All of these characters, however, also show us  very strong  zombie and resurrection symbolism: Beric is literally resurrected and called the lord of corpses, Jon is soon to be resurrected, Renly was pretend resurrected at the Battle of the Blackwater, Stannis looks “half a corpse” because of his making shadow babies with Melisandre, and Bloodraven is called a “grisly talking corpse” and “the corpse lord.”  My conclusion from this was that Martin has given us a resurrected corpse version of the fertility god instead of a freshly reborn one.  This is apparently our hero – Jon Snow the corn king will soon be a resurrected skinchanger, and he will most likely be a kind of new last hero for the new Long Night.  Similarly, I believe that the original last hero was likely to have been a resurrected skinchanger or greenseer as well.

The idea of a skinchanger zombie last hero also happens to make a lot of sense from a logistical and rational perspective, as they are the ideal candidates to journey into the cold dead lands and confront the Others, having no need for food, shelter, warmth, sleep.  Hearkening back to the saying, “what is dead may never die” and considering Coldhands’s probable age, it seems that skinchanger zombies may even be functionally immortal, unlike the degraded zombies we see elsewhere.  I don’t think it’s coincidence, in other words, that Jon is about to become a resurrected skinchanger – in fact, I am asserting that the reason George killed him and brought him back to life is precisely so that he can become a skinchanger zombie, the ideal candidate to face the Others.

We have seen that George is incorporating clear horned god and green man ideas in southern Westeros with Garth the Green, the Sacred Order of Green Men, and the Baratheon Storm Kings, but what we are interested in is evidence, literal or symbolic, which ties these ideas to the North, the Night’s Watch, and of course the last hero.  We have talked a lot about the last hero already, but we’ve only touched in the Night’s Watch around the edges and we haven’t examined Northern culture at all.  Today we will be doing just that: having a look at some of the old legends of the North, and next time we will talk about the Night’s Watch.  As we do so, we will be looking for anything having to do with green men or zombies.

Now, we have already found a smattering of horned lord ideas north of the Wall in wildling culture, and I have also proposed a tenuous link between Coldhands and the green men – or at least, I stole the idea from Bran and attempted to provide supporting evidence.  But we haven’t dealt with the real heavyweights of the North – the Starks –  so let’s turn our focus northward, towards the bright blue star that is the eye of the Ice Dragon – or the eye of the rider, tales vary.

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Garth’s Wheelbarrow

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We’ll begin by examining two of the major mythical figures of the north which may relate to Garth and the horned folk: the King of Winter and the Barrow King.  I know the King of Winter is the one you really want to hear about, so naturally we will start with the Barrow King, because that’s how these things are supposed to work.  The Barrow Kings are cool too, however, so we got to got to give them their due.

It begins with a possible direct connection between Garth the Green and the northern legend of the “First King” and the subsequent Barrow Kings of House Dustin.  In TWOIAF it says that Garth the Green was “High King of the First Men,” and that he might have been  the first lord or chieftain to lead the First Men across the Arm of Dorne and into Westeros.  His line of Gardener kings similarly claim to have been the high kings of the First Men thereafter.  But up in the Barrowlands in the North, we hear of the Barrow Kings who rivaled the Starks in ancient days, and they “styled themselves Kings of the First Men and claimed supremacy over all First Men everywhere.”  This claim was based on their supposed ancestry from someone called “the First King,” who is said to have “once ruled supreme over all the First Men.”  Now, any number of First Men kings could have claimed to be the “king of all First Men everywhere” or even to have descended from the ‘first great king’ of some portion of Westeros, but there is a very strong indication that the First King and Garth legends are actually talking about the same fellow.  It comes in ADWD, when Theon sees the Great Barrow at Barrowton:

Some claimed that it was the grave of the First King, who had led the First Men to Westeros.  Others argued that it must be some King of the Giants who was buried there, to account for it’s size.

So there you go.  It’s all ancient legend, but when they speak of the “First King” who lead the First Men across Westeros, they are talking about Garth the Green, or said another way, these appear to be two versions of the same myth, grown apart through time and circumstance.  Or perhaps it’s a literal connection – maybe old Greenhands ended his life up north, and he’s actually buried in this barrow.  Either way, the emphasis in the southern legend is on Garth’s life and fertility, while the emphasis in the northern myth is on Garth’s death and burial.  This generally lines up with the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of the nature god – winter represents the death state, the stage after the fertility god’s death where he await resurrection, so it make sense on a basic level to see a myth about a dead nature god in a place that is defined by winter.  Lots more of this to come!

As an aside, I must point out that the part of the Barrowton legend about the great barrow being the final resting place of a King of the Giants may have truth in it as well, if it does indeed refer to Garth, because there are a couple of clues about Garth being a larger than average dude.  When Robert dons his antlered helm so he can look like a horned god, Ned says that “he became a veritable giant,” and Renly’s antlered helm is said to add a foot and a half to his height.  Garth himself was said to sire John the Oak on a giantess, so maybe he was a larger than average dude to begin with, the kind a giantess would go for (and the kind who could survive the encounter, for that matter).  There are scattered stories about taller than average people around the world in TWOIAF, so perhaps Garth and the green men are some sort of very tall humans or humanoids.  The nice thing about theorizing about the green men is that we should find out the truth, because Howlands Reed has been to the Isle of Faces and potentially has told Jojen and Meera what he saw there, and Bran and Bloodraven can surely see what’s there though the weirwoodnet.  Perhaps we will learn the truth of these green men.  If they are tall stag-man humanoids, you heard it here first.

But getting back to the point, we have this possible link between Garth and the First King of the Barrow Kings via the shared claim of being the King of the First Men and the first to lead them across the Arm of Dorne.  We might be able to corroborate this by taking a look at the theme of the Barrow King myth and seeing if it lines up with the greater corn king mythology that defines Garth the Green.

As I began to say a moment ago, winter is the death stage in the cycle of nature and resurrected nature gods.  The idea of a Barrow King is precisely that of a King of Death, a King over Death, or a King of the Dead.  Barrowton, the seat of the Barrow Kings, is built at the foot of a huge grave – that’s a symbol which isn’t exactly what you would call cryptic.  Well, I mean, it’s about crypts, yes, but it’s not cryptic in that it’s not hard to understand…  anyway.  😉  Building your fortress over someone else’s grave is unquestionably bad luck and certainly in poor taste, but building a fortress over the grave of your greatest ancestor is something altogether different – it signifies the use of death and the grave as a foundation, as a source of power and authority.  If that ancestor is Garth, then the Barrow Kings are drawing authority and power from Garth’s death.

The descendants of the Barrow Kings and the First King are of House Dustin, and their sigil includes a rusted iron crown to pay tribute to the First King.  Compare that the Garth’s line of Gardener Kings, who wore a crown of vines and flowers in peacetime and a crown of bronze and later iron thorns when at war – it’s almost like Garth put on his metal crown and went to war in the north, then died, and his crown rusted to reflect his death.  But he’s still the king – the Barrow King, the Lord of Death, and so he still has a crown – but a rusted one to reflect his death state.  The Barrow King, in other words, sounds a lot like undead, zombified Garth.

There are more zombie clues to be found lurking about the First King of the Barrow Kings.  TWOIAF tells us that supposedly, there is a curse laid on the Great Barrow which

“would allow no living man to rival the First King.  This curse made the pretenders to the title grow corpse-like in appearance as it sucked away their vitality and life.”  

The idea of a curse this powerful seems a bit fanciful for Martin’s type of fantasy in my opinion, but the idea that the First King possessed magic that could turn people into walking corpses is an idea that has our attention.  Martin is certainly simulating the degradation and evolution of myth and folklore in ASOIAF, so when we look at myths like these, we are really looking at the base elements of the myth.  Here we have a dead Garth, reaching out from the grave to turn people corpse-like in a thematic inversion of Garth’s classic role as a bringer of fertility.  Instead of a curse, might this be another clue about greenseers raising the dead?  Green men or descendants of Garth who turned their magics in a darker direction?

In TWOIAF, the maesters suggest that the Barrow Kings who descend from the First King are themselves generally associated with corpses, saying that that is why it’s thought that the Corpse Queen of the Night’s King might have been a daughter of a Barrow King.  That’s another suggestion of the Barrow Kings being a magical bloodline, as the Corpse Queen was certainly a magical being who may have been involved in making Others with the Night’s King.  There are ample clues about greenseer magic being involved in the creation of the Others, so perhaps the Corpse Queen was using greenseer magic inherited from her green ancestors in her icy endeavors.  Similarly, many have suggested that the raising of the cold wights is a mutated form of greenseer magic, something like skinchanging the dead., an idea which I think has a lot of merit.

So the story here at Barrowton, overall, is about Garth the stag man / fertility god coming up north and dying, but establishing a line of kings who are the opposite of Garth – they celebrate death, building their fortress at the Great Barrow, and they might have the capability of turning people corpselike somehow or making zombies.  Whether or not Garth himself is in that barrow, his myth seems to have travelled, in all probability carried here by people who considered Garth their ancestor and who eventually came to believe he was buried in the Great Barrow.  If Garth was a green man – and again, we don’t know what green men really are – then we have a possible account of green men coming north and becoming associated with death.

To sum up, the Barrow King is a Lord of Death figure who represents the the death / winter cycle of the corn king process.  The corn king is killed in the fall and resurrected in the spring – but for a time, he’s the lord of the dead, like the Barrow Kings, and like the Corpse Queen and Night’s King for that matter.  In the Holly King / Oak King, brother vs. brother version of this type of myth, consider that each god takes a turn being dead for six months, or you might say in hibernation for six months.

If we think about, this death / winter stage of the corn king cycle is very, very important for ASOIAF, because it is during the merciless winter of the Long Night that the hard work must be done to turn the seasons.  That’s precisely when we need our heroes.  That’s why it makes so much sense for the last hero to be a zombie – winter is the death stage of the corn king cycle.  A corn king figure in winter kind of HAS to be dead in some sense – you’ll recall that Herne the Hunter, a horned god associated with the guarding the woods in wintertime, is a ghost.


The King is Dead

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The King of Winter may play into the idea of a dead corn king representing the winter stage of the cycle of the seasons as well, as I am sure you realize by now.  The Kings of Winter are heavily associated with the crypts, where they all have their life-like statues whose eyes always seem to follow people who pass by.   The crypts are essentially the heart of Winterfell, in fact, and Ned has many parallels to Hades, the Greek god of the underworld (and that makes three times I have to tell you to go read Mythological Weave of Ice and Fire, where sweetsunray has Ned as Hades on lockdown).  Hades has Cerberus the hellhound, and the Starks have their direwolves, who are likened to hellhounds in symbolic fashion.  Thus we can see that the Starks are very much lords of the dead, the keepers of the gates to the underworld –  just as the name ‘King of Winter’ implies.

Young Wolf by Saejima (fan pop)

Young Wolf by Saejima (fan pop)

As we heard last time, the Starks may descend from Garth the Green via Brandon of the Bloody Blade who may have been an ancestor of Bran the Builder.  That kind of goes together with the idea that the Barrow Kings descend from Garth, because if Garth and his descendants came north, it is very likely that traces of them could be seen in more than one House.  I didn’t mention this before, but there is other evidence of Stark activity in the south in the time before the Long Night.  Brandon the Builder is associated with building or designing two of the greatest castles in southern Westeros – the final version of the Hightower of Oldtown as well as great keep of Storm’s End.  In other words, whomever or whatever was behind the northern myth of Bran the Builder travelled around quite a bit.  Perhaps the myth itself originated in the south and travelled north with the descendants of Bran the Builder and Brandon of the Bloody Blade, or perhaps Bran or the group of people collectively remembered as ‘Bran the Builder’ made their first constructions in the south before migrating northward.  Either way, it can be taken as strong evidence of Stark activity in the South in ancient day, and as possible corroboration for a southern origin for House Stark as well.

Those two locations where Bran was said to have helped a great lord build his mighty keep – Oldtown and Storm’s End – are of course noteworthy in their own right for their connection to horned folk.  Oldtown is in the Reach and not far from Highgarden, home of Garth the Green, the horned green god, and the man whom Bran would have been helping to build the Hightower was Uthor of the Hightower, who was also said to have taken a daughter of Garth the Green to wife, Marris the Most Fair.  At Storm’s End, Bran would have been giving architectural advice to Durran Godsgrief, and Durran is a horned lord in his own right as we have seen, founding a line of stag-men who wear antlered crowns and antlered helms.

In other words, Bran the Builder’s ties to these two southern places and their horned god legends lines up well with the idea of Brandon of the Bloody Blade being a son of Garth and an ancestor to House Stark.  If that is the case, the story of their house is very similar to the Barrow Kings.  Descendants of the First Green Man King, come to the north to become the lords of death and winter.  It makes sense in terms of Westerosi cultural history, because both the Starks and the Barrow Kings might descend from Garth and therefore share a common origin for their myth, a green man story adapted to the more northern themes of winter and death. .

The idea of a green horned lord coming north to die and become the King of Winter is actually depicted at the very beginning of Game of Thrones, when Robert the Green Horned God King comes north to Winterfell and heads straight for the crypts!  When Robert arrives, Ned in fact acknowledges Robert’s dominion over Winterfell with his very first words spoken to Robert, greeting him with “Your Grace. Winterfell is yours.”  They head down into the crypts, and Robert wages a one-man contest to see how many times he can foreshadow his own death in one scene, including the not-very subtle example of Robert saying that sometimes he wishes he had lost at the Trident, or when King Bobby B speaks of drinking himself into an early grave.  That’s pretty much asking for it, in retrospect.  In particular, there’s something going on with Robert’s laughter I want to key in on:

Robert laughed, the sound rattling among the tombs and bouncing from the vaulted ceiling.  His smile was a flash of white teeth in the thicket of the huge black beard.

The word rattle evokes a death rattle, especially when it echoes amongst the tombs.  Martin pulls a similar trick in the scene where Bran and Jojen and Meera realize Coldhands is a corpse.   Coldhands’ speech is described with the line “his voice rattled in his throat, as thin and gaunt and he was.”  Coldhands voice is a death rattle, and here in the Winterfell crypts, Robert’s laughter is too.  A bit later in the crypt scene with Ned, Robert tells the infamous ‘the king eats, the hand takes the shit’ joke and laughs:

He threw back his head and roared his laughter.  The echoes rang through the darkness, and all around them the dead of Winterfell seemed to watch with cold and disapproving eyes.

Finally the laughter dwindled and stopped.  Ned was still on one knee, his eyes upraised.  “Damn it Ned,” the king complained. ” You might at least humor me with a smile.”

“They say it grows so cold up here in the winter that a man’s laughter freezes in his throat and chokes him to death,” Ned said evenly.  “Perhaps that’s why the Starks have so little humor.”

And now we know how Coldhands died – one to many jokes on the Wall.  Dolorous Edd better be careful, he could kill everyone.  Kidding aside though, Ned is pretty clearly turning Robert’s rattling laughter around and warning him that it can cause death and freezing, and his message is punctuated by the cold, disapproving glare of the stone Kings of Winter around him. There’s even a match for this at Renly’s death, which Brienne describes in the immediate aftermath by saying “He was laughing one moment, and suddenly the blood was everywhere.

Robert goes on to talk of how Ned and he should have been brothers by blood if he had married Lyanna, and that’s actually what is going on here, with Ned and Robert playing the ‘summer king / winter king as brothers who kill each other’ version of the corn king cycle.  In truth, Robert and Ned love each other of course, but their actions cause each other’s death, as prophesied in the opening chapter of AGOT when they find the clear omen of the direwolf mother killed by a stag antler.  Robert enters the crypts as the summer king, talking of the bounty and fertility of the south, and he names Ned the Winter King with his words of greeting, telling Ned how good it is to see “that frozen face of yours.”  The entire chapter consists of a kind of tug of war, with Ned saying “you should really come see the Wall and the Night’s Watch, and try not to laugh so much because it can kill you,” and Robert is constantly trying to get Ned to laugh and talking of teaching him to laugh again by showing him the rich fruitfulness of the south, and then finally taking Ned south to help him rule.

So in terms of depicting the cycle of the seasons as a fraternal affair, Ned and Robert are separate people, one symbolizing the winter stage of the cycle and one the summer.  But in many versions of the corn king mythology, all the stages of the cycle are represented by one deity, and in that context, the Winter King is actually a foreshadowing of the fate of the Summer King, and vise versa.  Ned’s King of Winter role is simply the death and winter phase of the corn king cycle, as with the Barrow King, while Robert’s is the summer and vitality stage.  That’s why it makes sense to depict Robert as the honorary lord of Winterfell while foreshadowing his death in Winterfell’s crypts – a dead horned god is analogous to the winter king, or this case, the King of Winter.

There’s even a line in the crypts where Robert is telling Ned that he wants him at his side again because he is surrounded by traitors and false flatterers, and then it says “Robert looked off into the darkness, for a moment as melancholy as a Stark.”  In other words, when Robert gazes in the darkness of the tomb and stares at his own death, he look like a Stark.

An illustration of Julius Caesar's claim of human sacrifice via wicker man

An illustration of Julius Caesar’s claim of human sacrifice via wicker man

In  fact… Martin may very well have taken the title “King of Winter” from a specific bit of green man folklore also known as “the wicker man.”  A few of you might be familiar with a British cult horror movie from the 70’s of the same name, the plot of which RadioHead actually just recreated in their music video for “Burn the Witch” as a matter of fact… but the wicker man is originally a Celtic druid practice.  According to Julius Caesar in his Commentary on the Gallic War, the druids built man-shaped wicker cages in which they burnt people alive.  Historians doubt the human sacrifice aspect of this however, as there is really no other evidence to support it.  What has survived of the wicker man tradition is the burning of wicker man effigies at various neb-pagan festivals.  (This is actually where the idea of burning a large wooden man at the Burning Man festival in Nevada came from.)

The Burning Man Festival, Blackrock City, Nevada

The Burning Man Festival, Blackrock City, Nevada

In particular, there is a practice of making a small green man with extra shoots and leaves from your garden in the fall.  You are supposed to keep it through the winter as the greenery dries out and dies, and during this time the wicker man is called “the King of Winter.”  It’s a green man, but it’s dead – and it’s the King of Winter.  It’s more like a straw man, a wicker man, or a wooden man.  In other word, when I tell you that the King of Winter was a formerly green man of some kind, it’s actually not the slightest bit tinfoily or far-feteched – indeed, it’s clearly suggested by the title “King of Winter.”

So you save your King of Winter all winter long, and then the spring comes, and with it, Beltane… what do you do with your dead green man, now that his winter reign is over?  You burn him, of course.

That’s pretty interesting – burning a green man when spring arrives?  Spring is usually when the corn king is resurrected, but we can quickly see that in ASOIAF, burning and resurrecting a corn king can be the same thing, particularly if Jon the dead corn king is resurrected by fire magic to help end the Long Night and bring the spring or if the same was true of the last hero.  A burning, resurrected green man is also exactly what we see in our fiery undead stag men, resurrected Renly with the ghostly green armor and antlers of golden flame, and half-a-corpse Stannis of the fiery hart and the fiery heart.

Now because King Robb Stark made Jon his heir in a will which may or may not surface in TWOW, resurrected Jon may well become the actual King in the North, and King in the North is just the more modern version of the King of Winter title.  Jon is already “Lord Snow,” which is just another way of saying King of Winter, if you think about it.  So, if Jon is resurrected by fire and becomes the King of Winter and helps to bring the spring time… he’ll be a stunningly accurate incarnation of the King of Winter.  Jon isn’t a green man or made from garden shoots, but he is a corn king and a skinchanger, and skinchanger magic is just a part of greenseer magic.  Thus we can see Jon the undead skinchanger will make an excellent King of Winter, and at the same time, he’ll actually be becoming his own version of Azor Ahai reborn as a fiery undead King of Winter.  As they say… “titles, titles.”

What’s this now?  Azor Ahai reborn as the King of Winter?  Well, look – we don’t know know how many different people contribute to the combined myth of the magic sword hero who defeats the Long Night, just as we don’t know how many ‘Bran’s are a part of the Bran the Builder legend or how many Durrans there were and which did what.  But yes – the King of Winter is like a frozen, dead Azor Ahai, but one who also burns in the spring.  It’s some kind of ice and fire duality – surprise surprise.  Consider the first King in the North we see in the books, Robb Stark.  He has the Tully looks – kissed by fire red hair, and striking blue eyes that could remind us of the Others, and of course there is a long history of associating the eyes of Starks with ice, including a Brandon Ice Eyes Stark, an ancient King in the North, and all of the stone kings of winter who are described as having “eyes of ice.”  Stannis shows us similar imagery when Dany sees him in her House of the Undying vision as a “blue-eyed king with a red sword.”  If we had more time we could also mention Jon Connington, the ‘Red Griffen Reborn’ who also has eyes of ice and kissed-by-fire red hair, and who wears a red wolf pelt to combine the symbolism of fire and the Starks… he’s also known for keeping the night watch while they are on the riverboat on the Rhoyne… but we don’t have time for that, so let’s talk about Robb, the actual King in the North / King of Winter that we see in the books.


Dark and Strong to Fight the Cold

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Robb Stark is indeed meant to show the archetype of the King of Winter, have no doubt.  All the kings of Winter in the Winterfell crypts are in the same distinctive pose – enthroned, with a wolf at his side and an iron longsword across his lap.  The sword are supposedly to keep the vengeful Stark spirits in their grave, but they might also be a warning to trespassers.  The latter is the modern accepted meaning of a Stark lord laying open steel across his lap – “everyone knew what that meant,” as Bran says when Robb does it to Tyrion in AGOT.  It’s a denial of hospitality, the opposite of invoking guest right.  The point is that Robb appears this way to us twice – once in AGOT, as I said, and more impressively in Catelyn’s first chapter of ACOK, the first time we see Robb crowned as the King in the North.   It’s a longer quote, but worth considering.  He is greeting us exactly the way a King in the North should.  This is the opening of the chapter:

Her son’s crown was fresh from the forge, and it seemed to Catelyn Stark that the weight of it pressed heavy on Robb’s head. The ancient crown of the Kings of Winter had been lost three centuries ago, yielded up to Aegon the Conqueror when Torrhen Stark knelt in submission. What Aegon had done with it no man could say. Lord Hoster’s smith had done his work well, and Robb’s crown looked much as the other was said to have looked in the tales told of the Stark kings of old; an open circlet of hammered bronze incised with the runes of the First Men, surmounted by nine black iron spikes wrought in the shape of longswords. Of gold and silver and gemstones, it had none; bronze and iron were the metals of winter, dark and strong to fight against the cold.

The King of Winter's crown (artists unknown - please let me know if you know who created this!)

The King of Winter’s crown (artists unknown – please let me know if you know who created this!)

This is a big hint that the King of Winter is someone who fights against the cold.  As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, such as in the Tyrion Targaryen episode, Winterfell is indeed an oasis of heat and warmth in the frozen north, a bulwark of heat against the cold.  You could read “King of Winter” as implying a king who uses the forces of winter, like the original king of the Others or something, just as you could interpret “Winterfell” to mean the place from which Winter falls, the source of winter, and just as you could interpret “winter is coming” as a threat – the King of Winter is coming to kill you.  But you can also interpret ‘the King of Winter’ as the king over winter, the king who defeated winter – and that’s what is implied here by his having dark and strong metals to fight the cold.  You could likewise interpret Winterfell to mean “the place where winter was felled,” as in defeated, and “winter is coming” as a warning to prepare to fight the winter.

These two ideas are not even mutually exclusive, as often times a victorious warrior will take on the trappings of the one he defeated, such with Orrys Baratheon becoming the new storm lord after defeating the old one.  The idea is that by defeating something powerful, you gain its power, and that is really what I think is up with the King of Winter.  It ends up as an ice and fire duality, where the King of Winter is a chilly dude who uses various forms of fire to master the forces of winter.  Recall Stannis as the blue-eyed king wielding a red sword, Robb as a blue-eyed king with kissed-by-fire red hair, and recall Jon dreaming of wielding a burning red sword while armored in “black ice.”

Ned Stark with Ice, by John Picacio

Ned Stark with Ice, by John Picacio

Ned is introduced to use with a sword called Ice which is named after the original sword of the King of Winter, and that makes us think of the King of Winter or the Lord of Stark as an icy fellow, but the sword ‘Ice’ is actually a smoke dark, nearly-black Valyrian steel blade forged in dragonfire with Valyrian magic.   Again, it’s the ice and fire unity idea.  It seems odd at first to see a dragon sword in the hands of the champion of the North, but again – dark metals to fight the cold.  In fact, Ned’s sword is more properly named “black Ice,” since it’s a nearly-black sword called Ice, and this causes us to wonder if Jon’s black ice armor is actually a clue about him needing some Valyrian steel armor, if any such thing happens to be lurking around somewhere.

black ice?

black ice?

If the symbol of “black ice” refers to Valyrian steel, then I would suggest that obsidian, which the Valyrians called frozen fire, is playing in to the black ice symbolism as well.  Obsidian actually look like black ice, and Martin is already telling us that it is frozen.  It can be called frozen fire because it is literally cooled magma, just as steel swords are created in a molten state before hardening or “freezing” in place.  Most importantly, Valyrian steel probably kills Others, and dragonglass definitely does.  If Valyrian steel is black ice that kills Others, then dragonglass must surely be black ice as well, at least that’s my thinking.

Frozen fire is actually the best way to summarize all of this ice and fire mixing with the King of Winter – he has an element of fire, but it’s frozen and black, just like cooled and hardened Valyrian steel or dragonglass.  Valyrian steel, obsidian, and the King of Winter – all dark and strong and fighting  the cold.

The scene with Robb continues:

When the guards brought in the captive, Robb called for his sword. Olyvar Frey offered it up hilt first, and her son drew the blade and laid it bare across his knees, a threat plain for all to see. “Your Grace, here is the man you asked for,” announced Ser Robin Ryger, captain of the Tully household guard. “Kneel before the king, Lannister!” Theon Greyjoy shouted. Ser Robin forced the prisoner to his knees.

It’s a threat plain to see, and it’s the exact pose of a King of Winter.  Next, pay attention to his sword:

“Rise, Ser Cleos.” Her son’s voice was not as icy as his father’s would have been, but he did not sound a boy of fifteen either. War had made a man of him before his time. Morning light glimmered faintly against the edge of the steel across his knees. 

Oh my, it’s a sword of the morning gleaming with dawn light.  In the hands of the King of Winter.  Some of you may be familiar with the theory that Dawn is actually the original Ice of House Stark, which I personally think is likely to be the case, and even if not, we can see a general symbolic overlap between the King of Winter and the last hero and using a sword to bring the morning.  We have yet to figure out how House Dayne and House Stark both figure into the last hero story in terms of bloodlines, though we may not ever be able to beyond a general association.  Nevertheless, the sword shining with morning light is a pretty good clue about the King of Winter having something to do with the last hero and ending the Long Night.

And lest we think that’s simply a poetic description and not a double meaning, here is Tyrion describing his memory of Robb meeting him with steel across his lap from the throne of the Kings of Winter:

He remembered Robb Stark as he had last seen him, in his father’s high seat in the Great Hall of Winterfell, a sword naked and shining in his hands. He remembered how the direwolves had come at him out of the shadows, and suddenly he could see them again, snarling and snapping, teeth bared in his face. 

This time the sword is naked and shining – that’s pretty powerful imagery, and it starts to become hard to explain as a coincidence.  Robb’s hellhounds emerge from the shadows, and the same thing happens in the scene with Robb holding court at Riverrun:

Yet it was not the sword that made Ser Cleos Frey anxious; it was the beast. Grey Wind, her son had named him. A direwolf large as any elkhound, lean and smoke-dark, with eyes like molten gold. When the beast padded forward and sniffed at the captive knight, every man in that hall could smell the scent of fear. Ser Cleos had been taken during the battle in the Whispering Wood, where Grey Wind had ripped out the throats of half a dozen men. 

Here’s the thing about Cleos being afraid of the beast and not the sword: the beast IS the sword, in a manner of speaking.  Grey Wind is described as “smoke dark,” and of course “grey wind” is a good way to describe billowing smoke clouds, but what it is important is that “smoke-dark” is also the description of Valyrian steel.  The very first one, in fact, when we see Ned’s Ice: it’s called “spell-forged and dark as smoke.”  When Jon Snow examines Longclaw with Sam in AFFC, it’s more of the same as Longclaw is described as “smoke-dark metal.”  Longclaw is of course ornamented with a pale stone pommel in the likeness of Ghosts’s head, again drawing an analogy between the Valyrian steel sword and the direwolf.  In addition to being the color of Valyrian steel, Grey Wind’s eyes are molten gold, adding to the general fiery symbolism present here and the idea of a fiery hellhound, and the notion of molten metal adds to the picture of Grey Wind as a sword.  To punctuate this, one of the first things Robb demands of Cleos and the Lannisters after setting Grey Wind loose is that they return his father’s sword, ‘black Ice.’

As for that sword… well, Robb wasn’t getting it back, as it was instead split in two and made into a pair of Lannister swords.  Funny thing, though, when Joffrey is given one of those swords at his wedding, Widow’s Wail, we read that “red and black ripples in the steel shimmered in the morning light” – just like Robb’s sword did when he was playing the role of King of Winter, and that’s no accident.  Robb’s sword at Riverrun represented the sword of the King of Winter, and Widow’s Wail used to be the actual sword of the Starks, ‘black Ice.’

There is only one other time in the entire series that a sword glimmers or shimmer with morning light, and unsurprisingly, the culprit is Longclaw, where Lord Commander Jon Snow is “watching the play of the morning light across the ripples” of its blade in ADWD as he contemplates executing Janos Slynt.  Just to make things abundantly clear, it happens again at the end of that same Jon chapter when he actually executes Janos; “pale morning sunlight ran up and down his blade” as he raises it high to strike the killing blow.  This is yet another confirmation that Jon is fated to wield a sword which brings the morning, which may or may not be Dawn – two of the three swords that shine with morning light are made of dark Valyrian steel, after all. That’s a debate we can’t get caught up in right now, and I really could see it going either way, but the point her is the very clear association between the King of Winter and a sword which shines with morning light.

One last note on that Joffrey scene with Widow’s Wail – there is last hero math here.  When he is looking for a name for the sword, he calls out for suggestions, and it says that “Joffrey dismissed a dozen before he heard one he liked,” which makes ‘Widow’s Wail’ the thirteenth member added to a group of twelve and thus symbolic of the last hero.  That fits with my notion of the last hero or King of Winter as sort of frozen fire, a mix of fire and ice which can fight the cold, and further associates Valyrian steel with the last hero.

Like his sword, Joffrey too gets the last hero math in Jamie’s weirwood stump dream  – that was the dream where Jaime found himself in the bowels of casterly Rock, wielding a silvery-blue flaming sword with Brienne and being confronted by various ghosts and spectres.  He sees his son Joffrey, and behind him “a dozen more dark shapes with golden hair” – again, it’s one thing leading group of twelve, and “dark shapes” makes them sound like ghosts or dead things.

Jaime himself, Joff’s true father, was in turn prodded down the hallways of Casterly Rock in this dream by “a dozen tall dark figures in cowled robes that his their faces” who all hold spears, which puts Jaime in the last hero role, and this just emphasizes the idea of the last hero / Azor Ahai relationship as some sort of cycle or father / son type of thing.  Those twelve nodded dream figures are pretty creepy, I have to say, and they remind me of Coldhands, whose face is also hidden by his cowl when Sam meets him.

Now it must be said, Joffrey makes for a shitty last hero, but I think the thing to focus on is his symbolism.  Although Joff isn’t really Robert’s son, he wears a stag crown and claims Baratheon descent, making him a type of solar horned lord.  On the day he is given the former sword of the Starks, gleaming with morning light, he dies.. which makes perfect sense if you subscribe to my awesome theory about the last hero becoming an undead skinchanger and then going out to fight the Others.  Joff dies of strangulation, too, like so many other sacrificed figures with neck or throat wounds such as Jon, Renly, Beric, Robb (beheading counts as a throat wound, I’d say), and probably Coldhands.  Even Cressen is wearing Patchface’s mockery of an antlered helm when he dies by ‘the Strangler,’ the same poison used on Joffrey.

Hearkening back to the last episode when we discussed the pattern of green horned folk and red horned folk killing each other, it’s worth noting that Joffrey’s death fits the pattern.  The person who everyone thinks killed Joff is Tyrion, with his possible secret Targaryen lineage and copious demon and gargoyle imagery (you’ll recall the armorer in King’s Landing offering to make Tyrion a ferocious demon helmet, complete with horns, for example).  Joffrey was actually killed  by Lady Olenna, or perhaps you might say House Tyrell as a whole, and of course the Tyrells are the current occupants of Highgarden, the place associated with Garth and his Gardener kings.


The Supper After the Last Supper

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Let’s actually talk about Robb’s death for a moment, and get these stupid Lannisters out of our King of Winter section.  Robb dies tragically at the Red Wedding, and naturally, his death fits the same pattern.  First of all,  he was remotely “killed” by Mel and Stannis’s burning of the leeches, meaning that in a certain sense, he was killed by Stannis, a burning stag, half-corpse blah blah blah you know the drill.  The actual killing blow came from Roose Bolton, who as we all know is an immortal skinchanging bodysnatcher.

Say what now?  You haven’t heard of the Bolt-on theory that says that the spirit inhabiting the body of “Roose Bolton” is actually an eight thousand years old skinchanger who simply bodysnatches a new body when the current one gets old?  Do yourself a favor and google that one when you are done with this.  It sounds crazy, but there is just enough evidence to drive you mad thinking about it… but whether or not it’s true, it’s easy to see that the Boltons, who flay their enemies and are said to “wear their skins,” including the skins of a few Starks, can at the very least symbolize vampire skinchanger people.  Additionally, Ramsay Snow has a weird kind of matching symbolism to Jon Snow.  The other people responsible for killing Robb would be the Freys, and I actually am not sure if they fit the pattern, as they have no horns or skinchanging symbolism.  We’ll just have to let Martin off the hook for that one, what can I say.

Robb wasn’t burned, as the wicker man King of Winter is, however in the same sense that he was killed by Stannis, you could also say he was killed by fire magic.  When news of his death and the grisly stunt with the wolf head reaches Stannis, Melisandre, and their supporters, Axel Florent says that “it was the Lord’s wrath who slew him,” suggesting Robb’s death by fire in a symbolic sense.  Just as beheading surely counts as a neck or throat wound, I’d have to say the being killed by a fire god counts for being burned.

The cool thing about dead Robb is that he is loaded with symbolism.  Robb appears to us twice in vision form as a living corpse – once in Dany’s House of the Undying vision and once in a nightmare of Theon Greyjoy’s – and both times he appears as part of a feast of the dead.  In the House of the undying, Dany sees Robb as “a dead man with the head of a wolf,” sitting on a throne and presiding over a feast attended only by corpses, like some grisly, beyond-the-grave version of the Last Supper of Jesus and the twelve disciples.  And yes, that’s last hero math for Jesus, which at this point should not surprise you.  In another podcast, I will explain how all of this relates to the zodiac, which is really the source of all of these twelves.  The thirteenth in that case is usually the Morningstar, Venus, and accordingly, Jesus is a Morningstar deity, which we covered in our Lucifer means Lightbringer episode.

The King of Winter as an undead wolf-man

The King of Winter as an undead wolf-man

In any case, this vision of dead, wolf-headed Robb is a fairly clear foreshadowing of the barbaric stunt the Freys pull by mounting the head of Grey Wind on Robb’s headless corpse after the Red Wedding.  But you know what else it might be foreshadowing?  Undead Jon, the King of Winter, as a wolf-man, perhaps in the sense that we proposed in the last episode where Jon’s spirit merges with Ghost’s and the merged wolf/man spirit is what is returned to Jon’s body.  At the very least, this vision of dead, wolf-headed Robb suggests an undead skinchanger, a part-wolf, part-man who is a walking corpse.

Robb also wears the black iron crown of the King of Winter in this vision probably just to make sure we know who we are talking about here.  One other note on that crown of the King of Winter, which is nine iron longswords on a bronze circlet – it sounds a lot like the wartime crown of the Gardener Kings,  even more than the rusted crown of the Barrow Kings does.  The crown of the Gardener Kings was wrought in the shape of bronze and later iron thorns, and there is ample symbolism comparing swords and thorns in the series, so the two crowns really are a pretty good match.  You’ll also note that the Gardener’s crown of thorns is very suggestive of the mocking crown of thorns that Jesus was made to wear at his crucifixion.

The other vision of Robb as a corpse King of Winter comes to Theon in a nightmare, and like Dany’s vision of corpse Robb Stark, it too comes in ACOK, before Robb’s actual death, and is thus a foreshadowing of his death.  Theon’s dream starts with a memory of the feast thrown for Robert when he came to Winterfell, tying this scene to that chapter with Robert in the crypts telegraphing his own death.  But then the music and wine turn sour, and Theon sees that the is dining with the dead – linking this scene with Dany’s HOTU vision of corpse Robb at a feast of the dead.  Dead wolfman Robb was at the head of the table in that vision, but here it is dead king Robert, emphasizing the link between the horned god (Robert) and the King of Winter (Robb).  Robb is of course named after Robert, which now earns a little chuckle from you and me.  Here is the corpse feast from Theon’s dream Winterfell:

King Robert sat with his guts spilling out on the table from the great gash in his belly, and Lord Eddard was headless beside him. Corpses lined the benches below, grey-brown flesh sloughing off their bones as they raised their cups to toast, worms crawling in and out of the holes that were their eyes. He knew them, every one…

It then lists all the people Theon had a hand in killing, plus a few he didn’t such as Lyanna and Brandon Stark, Ned’s siblings.  Which reminds me – the grisly murder of Rickard and Brandon… well, Rickard is burned like a true King of Winter, and Brandon is strangled, like all of the other throat-wound sacrificial victims.  But continuing with Theon’s nightmare of the corpse feast:

Along the walls figures half-seen moved through the shadows, pale shades with long grim faces. The sight of them sent fear shivering through Theon sharp as a knife. And then the tall doors opened with a crash, and a freezing gale blew down the hall, and Robb came walking out of the night. Grey Wind stalked beside, eyes burning, and man and wolf alike bled from half a hundred savage wounds.

This terrifying vision of a corpse King of Winter again unites fire and ice – the cold winds swirl about Robb, but his wolf, Grey Wind, has eyes which are burning like a true hellhound.  We hear that half the hells are frozen in Westerosi folklore, so perhaps the King of Winter simply has all the powers of hell behind him, of both ice and fire.  And boy does he look pissed.  Great Caesar’s Ghost!  That’s what you get for having a corpse feast without inviting the King of Winter.

So why the corpse feast associated with the King of Winter?  Well, two reasons, I believe.  The first is to show an inversion of the bounty and vitality of the fertility god, as with everything else about the King of Winter and the Barrow King – that seems straightforward enough.

The second would be to specifically invoke the Last Supper, which was the final meal Jesus had with his twelve disciples before he was betrayed by one of them, arrested, tried, and crucified… and then, famously, resurrected.  The parallels between Jesus and our image of the last hero are really apparent, so casting the corpse King of Winter as Jesus is essentially a clue about the King of Winter having something to do with the last hero and ending the Long Night.

As I mentioned, Jesus is a Morningstar figure, and like the various corn king figures, Morningstar deities are killed and resurrected, just not in conjunction with the cycle of the seasons.  Jon and the last hero are thoroughly draped in Morningstar symbolism, just as they are with corn king symbolism, so what we are seeing here with dead Robb and the last supper for the dead is the King of Winter joining the club.  The King of Winter is already a resurrected green man figure, and now he has Morningstar symbolism to go along with it.  We actually saw Morningstar symbolism with the King of Winter already with all the shining swords glimmering with morning light.  Once again, all of this is basically telling us that this figure of the undead King of Winter is a weird kind of savior figure, and that’s more or less the premise of this series about skinchanger zombies.

We are almost done with Robb, but this Theon chapter with the corpse feast does end with a nice clue about Starks and horned people which I cannot pass up:

On their iron spikes atop the gatehouse, the heads waited. Theon gazed at them silently while the wind tugged on his cloak with small ghostly hands. The miller’s boys had been of an age with Bran and Rickon, alike in size and coloring, and once Reek had flayed the skin from their faces and dipped their heads in tar, it was easy to see familiar features in those misshapen lumps of rotting flesh. People were such fools. If we’d said they were rams’ heads, they would have seen horns.

These heads are not really Starks, but they are representing Starks, and we are given three pieces of information about these heads – and they are all clues in the same direction.  They have been skinned, suggesting skinchanging (and of course Bran and presumably Rickon are skinchangers anyway); they are actually the children of a miller – think of milling as in milling corn, creating a corn king association with ‘dead’ Bran and Rickon; and of course the final line about them having horns like a horned lord.

Robb actually gets a horned reference too in a less direct fashion.  In AGOT, as he awaits to cross the Twins, he agrees to the marriage pact with an unspecified Frey girl in order to cross, and we have this:

They crossed at evenfall as a horned moon floated upon the river.  The double column wound its way through the gate of the eastern twin like a great steel snake, slithering across the courtyard, into the keep and over the bridge, to issue forth once more from the second castle on the west bank.  Catelyn rode at the head of the serpent, with her son and her uncle Brynden and Ser Stevron Frey. 

Try to picture this scene from the river: the reflected image of the horned, crescent moon appears to float on the surface of the river, and at this moment, a steel snake slithers across the river.  The image we get is of a horned serpent, which is of course another way of saying “dragon.”

The more important thing here though is the foreshadowing.  The horned moon connotes sacrifice, being compared to sickles and curved knives, especially in Bran’s last chapter in ADWD where the moon is four times described as “a crescent, thin and sharp as the bade of a knife,” and don’t forget that the chapter ends with a human being sacrificed in front of the heart tree with a sickle shaped blade.  Not only do the crescent moon and horned moon resemble the curved blades often used in ritual sacrifice, they also resemble the horned animals who are sacrificed, like stags, bulls, goats, and rams.  You’ll notice the classic horned god figure is the embodiment of all of this, having horns and also being ritually sacrificed.  And although he’s a solar figure himself, he is often pictured at night with a crescent moon floating above his head, in between his antlers.

So now that we’re all up to speed on sacrificial aspect of the horned moon symbolism, we can see that this is indeed an omen, a bit of foreshadowing – it’s not a good sign that he horned moon appears on the river as Robb’s army crosses the river.  As we all know, Robb and his army will indeed be slaughtered when they returns here to the Twins for the Red Wedding.  There’s other death foreshadowing in this scene too – as they pass through the castles on either end of the bridge, the glittering eyes of Walder Frey and his Frey-folk peer down at the Starks through the ‘murder holes.’

I am proposing that the dead King of Winter is a personification of the winter and death phase of the horned god resurrection cycle, so it’s really quite nice to see the horned moon used to foreshadow Robb’s death.   I mean it’s not nice nice, but it fits the symbolism we find elsewhere, which is always a good thing.


Whispers in the Wood

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So far, Robb Stark has given us a ton of information about the King of Winter, tying him to the last hero, the sword that brings the morning, the horned god ideas, and to being a zombie wolfman skinchanger.  To this I would add the suggestion of the King of Winter as a greenseer, and that comes at the scene of Robb’s greatest victory, the battle of the Whispering Wood.  That chapter opens with “the woods were full of whispers,” and the very idea of a whispering wood is simply a clever way of referencing greenseers and weirwoods, because whispering is the communication of the weirwood, as we have seen many times. The wood that is full of whispers is the weirwoodnet, and that is precisely where we find the King of Winter, fighting a battle.  Hmm, this is starting to sound like The Matrix or Lawnmower Man or something.

The first thing that stands out is the whispering wood seems to be attacking along with Robb as if they are one.  As the battle begins, Robb’s soldiers conceal their weapons under the thick carpet of dead leaves which covers the ground, and his bowmen let loose while hidden in the trees.  The exact line as they spring their trap was “the whispering wood let out its breath all at once, as the bowmen Robb had hidden in the branches of the trees let fly their arrows..” In other words, the exhalation of the whispering wood is the storm of arrows.

We saw the same thing when the mountain clans dressed up as trees and shrubs and attacked the Ironborn at Deepwood Motte under the command of Stannis, who is of course an undead horned god / Azor Ahai figure.  When Asha Greyjoy realizes why the trees seem to be creeping closer, she remarks..

Oho, these mountain goats have cloaked themselves in pine boughs.

Goats are of course a prime horned animal often chosen for sacrifice, so the implication here is of Stannis’s army of tree people as horned folk. That’s pretty explicit – people that are like horned animals and walking trees, and again, fighting for Azor Ahai reborn as a corpse-like  burning stag.  And remember Renly’s knights of summer?  Consider this passage as Catelyn approaches the tent right before Renly’s murder:

The long ranks of man and horse were armored in darkness, as black as if the Smith had hammered night itself into steel. There were banners to her right, banners to her left, and rank on rank of banners before her, but in the predawn gloom, neither colors nor sigils could be discerned. A grey army, Catelyn thought. Grey men on grey horses beneath grey banners. As they sat their horses waiting, Renly’s shadow knights pointed their lances upward, so she rode through a forest of tall naked trees, bereft of leaves and life. 

Renly is a sacrificed green man, and his army is a shadow army of dead trees.  I actually forgot to mention this last time, but right after Renly dies, his green tent catches on fire, giving us the image of a burning green horned god, as resurrected Renly does at the Blackwater.  Taken with Stannis’s army of tree-wearing northmen and Robb’s army attacking from inside the Whispering Wood, we can see that the dead horned god is supposed to lead an army of tree people in some fashion, quite possibly dead tree people.

Death symbolism abounds at the whispering wood as well.  We mentioned that the weapons are concealed under a thick carpet of dead leaves, and as Robb marshaled his forces to deploy for this battle, we read that..

It was dark among the trees where the moon did not reach.  When Robb turned his head to look at her, she could only see black inside his visor. 

That’s pretty creepy, I have to say, and it’s a good way to reinforce this idea of the King of Winter as a dead person even while Robb is still alive.  As the horns sound the attack of the Northmen, Grey Wind’s howling fills the whispering wood, and Catleyn thinks to herself “so this is what death sounds like.”  Robb is like a grim reaper with a hellhound tolling the sound of doom, more or less.  In other words, to the extent the King of Winter, the lord of the whispering wood, is a greenseer, he’s one associated pretty strongly with death.  I would explain this by suggesting that he is simply a resurrected greenseer or skinchanger.

The idea of the King of Winter as a greenseer is also suggested in Bran’s vision of Ned which he sees through the eyes of there Winterfell heart tree while in Bloodraven’s cave hopped up on weirwood paste:

Lord Eddard Stark sat upon a rock beside the deep black pool in the godswood, the pale roots of the heart tree twisting around him like an old man’s gnarled arms. The greatsword Ice lay across Lord Eddard’s lap, and he was cleaning the blade with an oilcloth. “Winterfell,” Bran whispered. His father looked up. “Who’s there?” he asked, turning … 

… and Bran, frightened, pulled away. His father and the black pool and the godswood faded and were gone and he was back in the cavern, the pale thick roots of his weirwood throne cradling his limbs as a mother does a child. A torch flared to life before him.

Notice the parallel here – Bran’s weirwood throne cradles him like a mother does a child, while the weirwood at Winterfell cradles Ned with an old man’s arms.  This places Ned in the role of a greenseer, and I believe this is suggestive of the latent greenseer / skinchanger ability in the Stark bloodline.   It also speaks of the King of Winter as an archetype: one who has weirwood branches wrapped around him.  When he wakes, he tells Bloodraven that Ned could hear him, and Bloodraven responds that “he heard a whisper on the wind, a rustling amongst the leaves.”  It’s the whispering wood motif again, a whispering to one descendent of the King of Winter from another descendent of the King of Winter.

Ned & Ice by Michael Komarck

Ned & Ice by Michael Komarck

There’s also a nice metaphor in a Bran chapter of AGOT.  It may simply be poetic description, but Winterfell is described as a “grey stone labyrinth” which “had grown over the centuries like some monstrous tone tree.”  Of course a stone tree is exactly what weirwoods become if they are killed – after a few centuries, they essentially petrify in place and turn to stone.  The best example of that is with Nagga’s Ribs which are almost certainly petrified weirwood – I believe they are actually the ribbing of an overturned ship’s hull made from weirwood – but which are taken as the rib cage of a dead sea monster by the Ironborn.  I wrote about that extensively in my Grey King and the Sea Dragon episode if you are curious, but the point here about Winterfell is simple.  A dead weirwood tree is synonymous with a dead greenseer, because a greenseer becomes one with his weirwood tree.  Winterfell being symbolized as a dead, stone weirwood fits perfectly with the idea of the dead greenseer King of Winter, a personification of the death phase of the corn king cycle.

Again, it may be nothing, but calling the stone tree of Winterfell a “labyrinth” may be a nod to the myth of the Minotaur, a bull-man monster who lived in side of the labyrinth.  That’s a totally different line of horned symbolism from the corn king ideas, but I thought I would mention it.  Is Martin trying to suggest a monstrous, horned, half-human / half-animal being inside of Winterfell, or inside its trees (as in ‘in the weirwoodnet’)?  Does this have something to do with the seemingly magical truism that there “must always be a Stark in Winterfell?”

Here I will throw out one of my favorite little speculative predictions: there could be a weirwood throne underneath Winterfell’s heart tree, perhaps accessible through the crypts.  If Bran ever leaves Bloodraven’s cave, this would be the logical place for him to end up, the true “Ghost in Winterfell.”  Perhaps Jon might see it if he can ever carryout his dream of walking through the crypts to its full extent. This will no doubt allow the Stark sitting in this throne to wake all the Stark dead in the crypts and the lichyards and form an army of the dead to fight the Others.

It may be tinfoil, but there is ample foreshadowing of the spirits of the Kings of Winter rising somehow, including one of Jon’s dreams where they are literally walking out of their tombs.  I would draw your attention back to Ned’s line in AGOT which is taken as a foreshadowing of Jon Snow as a King.  Robert Baratheon says “I’ve never seen such a vast emptiness, where are all your people,” and Ned says they are likely too shy to come out, and that kings are a rare sight in the north, to which Robert famously responds “More likely they were hiding under the snow.  Snow, Ned!” which is taken as a double meaning to refer to kings being under the snow, as in Jon Snow.

Robert’s intend meaning, however, is that Ned’s people are hiding under the snow, which suggests Ned’ s people as wights, who lie under the snow under nightfall.  The Kings of Winter actually did bury their “faithful servants” in a lichyard in the shadow of the First Keep, as we learn in AGOT.  So… if the undead King of Winter Jon Snow needs an army of the undead for some reason… I mean it’s right there is all I’m saying.  We have dead winter kings and faithful servants both, ready to go.

Now even if none of that ever happens and the corpses stay in their graves and crypts, the repeated emphasis on the dead of Winterfell in general and the crypts in particular do effectively convey the idea of the Kings of Winter as the lord of death.  Consider our very first glimpse of Ned – as an executioner, passing the sentence and swinging the sword… and teaching his children to do the same.

It must be said that just because the king of Winter is a death figure and a lord of the dead does not make him a villain by any means.  Osiris and Hades are two well known “Lord of the Dead” figures, and they definitely would not be called villains.  Mythology is full of resurrected heroes, even beyond the corn king traditions, as we saw in our Lucifer means Lightbringer episode where we examined the phenomena of Morningstar deities.  And remember, we are actually looking for a zombie hero to save us from the zombie apocalypse.  I think that man will be GhostJon, the fiery undead wolfman, corpse-king and corn king, Azor Ahai reborn as the King of Winter, the light that brings the dawn.  As they say, titles, titles.

But he’s gonna need some help, he can’t do it on his own, can he?  And neither did the last hero or Azor Ahai win their war alone, so it’s time to talk about the Night’s Watch and the last hero’s twelve companions.  I hope you enjoyed that unpacking of the Barrow King and King of Winter mythology, and I am actually saving some of the best King of Winter material for the third head of this green zombie dragon, so we aren’t through yet.  At the end of it all, I think it makes sense from a narrative point of view to use the mythologies of the the various houses in the North to tell us about the northern part of the War for the Dawn business, as seems to be the case.   And what we see so far is a story about dead green men, in one sense or another.

 

16 thoughts on “King of Winter, Lord of Death

  1. Pingback: History of Mythical Astronomy of Ice and Fire | The Amber Compendium of Myth

  2. I’m not particularly religious, but I’d discourage the use of the terms of Christian and Jewish “mythology”. The term doesn’t properly apply, not yet anyway. There I’d use history, theology or mysticism. I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read, but if you want to be accurate, be accurate.

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    • Actually I disagree with you and would push back against your definition of mythology. Mythology is defined as “a collection of myths especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition.” No one objects to the term Hindu mythology, and Hinduism is very much an active religion. There really is no functional difference between religion and mythology, and that’s a subject which I explore in the episode about George Martin writing modern mythology.

      The problem is that most people equate the word mythology with connotations of falsehood. If something is a myth, it isn’t true. That is actually the wrong definition of mythology, and again that is a subject which I addressed in that episode which I was referring to. Everyone has their own mythology, Star Wars is mythology. A Song of Ice and Fire is mythology – it’s a modern mythology.

      I’m asking my readers and listeners to not be quite so rigid with the definition of the word, but I’m not just throwing it around haphazardly. I’ve taken the time to explain exactly what I mean, and exactly what roles mythology can play that we are talking about, particularly in light of Joseph Campbell’s views on mythology.

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    • Definition of mythology, from The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
      Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company:

      “The body of myths belonging to a culture. Myths are traditional stories about gods and heroes. They often account for the basic aspects of existence — explaining, for instance, how the Earth was created, why people have to die, or why the year is divided into seasons. Classical mythology — the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans — has had an enormous influence on European and American culture.”

      You’ll note they append the prefix “classic” to mythology to refer to older mythologies, because the word mythology by itself does not exclusively refer to old mythology, but all mythology, past and present.

      All religions have mythology, and that is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean religion is false – as George Campbell says, these types of esoteric ideas are not meant to be understood as literally true or not true. Again I will refer you to this essay:

      https://lucifermeanslightbringer.com/methodology/

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  3. Pingback: Mythical Astronomy of Ice and Fire (translations to Polish) | The Amber Compendium of Myth

  4. LML, I always enjoy your work. One thing I noticed, I think you may be onto something when you mentioned a possible link to fire resurrections during the long night. The wildlings have the “kissed by fire” superstitions where red-headed persons are considered to be lucky. I noticed that all persons who have received the last kiss (kiss of fire) and were resurrected are all redheads: Beric, Cat and possibly Mel. Probably just coincidence and fiery symbolism, but interesting nonetheless.

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    • Oh god – watch out Sansa!!!

      Lol, hopefully not. But yeah, great catch. I talk about the kissed by fire hair as a symbol of a fiery person all the time, but I guess I never noticed that Beric, Cat, and Melisandre are all redheads. Nice job. Robb is only resurrected in dream, but those dreams are important and he’s kissed by fire too. And thanks for reminding me about that Wildling superstition, that is nicely explained by my theory, huh?

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  5. Is the 6th person Theon? He is a “Godly king”, he dies at winterfell and is born again in winterfell. Also he is the embodiment of the phrase “what is dead may never die” he actually cannot seem to die although he looks like a corpse,the “but rises harder and stronger” is yet to be determined. Maybe it’s just my wishful thinking but he is surrounded by intriguing symbolism.

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  6. Hey, LmL – great job again!

    As to the Freys not seeming to fit the pattern: Why not?

    The Freyr and his sister Freya are fertility gods in Norse mythology. It seems fitting that the fertiliy gods kill the Winter King in a wedding ritual.

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  7. I think that GRRM is using the horns in part as a symbol for antennae and antennas, for communication and possession of the dead etc. Consider the function of the crown in helping to project a monarch’s power, such as the means to martial troops, coupled with the crown attracting advisers to whisper in their ear.

    The bling factor of crowns causes them to reflect or refract light, metaphors for relaying a signal and/or manipulating it to bedazzle the subservient (as in high septon’s crystal crown). The craftsmanship and expensive metals that go into the making of a crown should put you in mind of an exceedingly expensive computer, studded with flashing lights and cores in place of gems and patterned with wire like a microchip, a circlet with a circuit. I think you may have already mentioned the association with antlers and lightning, fire running along them also symbolises conducting heat/electrons.

    Catelyn thinks on the queer effect crowns have on the heads beneath them, another indication that the cyber-crown acts like a parasite altering the mind of its host, with the power of the state (Crown) determined by the interplay between the machine and the man. This shows how the zombie phenomenon begins with a human which allows his flesh (in particular brain) to be consumed, setting in motion the disease cycle whereby the undead beget more undead by resurrecting the slain and capturing more candidate horned lords.

    In relation to the Horned Lords, I think that the same line of thinking applies: the crown is a poisoned gift, like a parasite which may afford certain power coupled with a curse. This can be related to the myth of the Jackalope (Jack rabbit with antelope horns) and Al-mi’raj, which is thought to have arisen from sightings of rabbits afflicted with Shope papilloma virus which causes warty growths which were mistaken for horns.

    Safe to say lots of body horror involved with becoming a horned lord, think of worms beneath the skin (as in weirwood fusion), coalescing to form the growth. Horns of various animals look worm/wyrm like in many respects: phallic symbolism, coiled like a snake, segmented, antlers are like that of the hydra/snake, many headed and a routinely shed and regenerate as in the heads/skin.

    This isnt to say that an actual parasite is used to activate the powers of a horned lord, but i think the essence of a foreign organism as in their DNA i component to the horned lord, Im not sure if this is acquired through drinking a blood potion as in the weirwood paste or if it’s inherited, not that blood drinking isn’t already a metaphor for reproduction.

    Also check out cordyceps fungus, especially on a spider if you want to see a good example of a parasite zombifying its host and turning it into a mouldy statue covered with horn shaped fruits which project spores that perpetuate the cycle.

    In line with my take on the horns as parasitic, I think one of their main weaknesses is that they open a backdoor for manipulation by a higher being, like how an animal can be steered by lassoing its horns. This means horned lords can be considered like middle management, intermediaries or avatars for a god, which relates back to my point that the antenna can function to relay signals, one ‘overmind’ cant control a whole zombie horde directly, within it must be dispersed a network of overseers to extend the coverage and diversify the commands within the area of influence.

    One last point: fool’s crown= dunce’s cap, another indication that the horn is drain on sanity/sobriety

    hope this helps, keep up the good work

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  8. Shiny!

    These essays are getting better and better. Congrats, Luc!

    The idea that Garth is the HBIC of the First Men is a great one, and it’s supported by the text, with the quotes you’ve given. Garth’s tale also parallels the history of Persephone and Hades: her “death” (eating the pomegranate) brings about winter, and her “rebirth” makes her mother make Earth fertile again. Except that he’s both Hades and Persephone.

    “and their sigil includes a rusted iron crown to pay tribute to the First King”
    Doesn’t Old Nan say the Others hated iron? I’m so loving thinking of them as the Sidhe, who have no love for iron, either.

    The Barrow King sounds like a scarecrow. I have no idea why the idea popped in my brain, but that’s the connection it’s making. And Garth is becoming more and more similar to the Bloodstone Emperor.

    The Night’s Queen’s most definitely magical—I wonder how/why she got to the north (back then, the wildlings must have been only regular FM people, instead of wildlings) of the Wall. She’s a powerful necromancer as well, like Circe (or the Leanansidhe), or at least a woods witch. Talk about making a deal with the devil. So, the NQ could be that tiger woman the BSE emperor married, or something close.

    “Thus we can see that the Starks are very much lords of the dead, the keepers of the gates to the underworld”
    *quotes the NW vows with fervor*

    If we think of the possibility that House Stark came from the South, it makes it easier to think how they could be related to the Daynes. It isn’t a strange idea, since House Blackwood was a Northern House until the Starks kicked them out and House Manderly was a southern House later taken in by the Starks.

    Bran the Builder is a bit like Odysseus, no? He travels a lot, does a lot of great things, builds (not horses, though) and faces the wrath of the gods. Was he No One, too?

    Who’d have said those horns Cersei gave Robert would serve a symbolic purpose, huh?
    Ah, not what you meant. Okay.

    “And now we know how Coldhands died – one to many jokes on the Wall”
    “We’ll defend the Wall to the last man,” someone said.
    “Heh, it won’t be me,” said Warmhands in a satisfied tone.

    (Sorry)

    “Jon is already “Lord Snow,” which is just another way of saying King of Winter”
    Glad to know you agree. 😀

    Oh, the things we can think about with Jon Connington as a King of Winter figure — literally becoming stone and everything…

    Other corn king figures are the two brats from the Dance. The sibling rivalry which culminated with Rhaenyra being eaten alive by Aegon II’s dragon—a literal sacrifice—, while she was assuming the duties of summer king (“On Maiden’s Day in the year 130 AC, the Citadel of Oldtown sent forth three hundred white ravens to herald the coming of winter, but this was high summer for Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen”) when in truth she was the winter queen; the reversal role mustn’t have pleased the cosmos.

    When will we get more?

    ***

    Thunderclap, I think the last hero didn’t make a Pact with the Others, but with the COTF. In exchange for their aid, the last hero agreed to stop cutting the weirwoods and to worship the old gods. The Others were defeated by a joined force of COTF and men—kind of makes one wonder if the giants took part in it, too.

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    • Hey Lidy!

      As for Barrow Kings and scarecrows, just wait for Part 3. 😉

      As for Garth and the BSE, consider that regular bloodstone is red and green, and if he follow the pattern of his ancestors, who have gemstone yes matching their gemstone titles, he would have red and green eyes, like a greenseer.

      Agree that a southerly origin for the Starks make sit easier to see how the Daynes and Starks might be connected. 🙂 The Marris link between Garth and the Hightowers is big, because the Hightowers are likely to be GEOTD people like the Daynes.

      Yes, the Dance. Lots o green dragons in that one, which represents the idea of a greenseer dragon. I am going to rip into that whole line of symbolism in my next Weirwood Compendium episode, and I will talk more about the Dance there. Really nice catch on the line about Rhaenyra as having her summer during winter.

      I’ll have part 3 out pretty soon, working on it now.

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  9. Question how we know the Last hero defeated the Others ?
    We’re told he was on his own and sword was broken !
    We know Others still exist so defeated by not destroyed.
    It is not a more likely scenario that the Last hero, made a pact with the Others and broke his sword symbolically to show man would not war with them again ?

    In response to who is a possible Corn King figure, I’d pick Vargo Hoat.

    He has Horned Lord symbolism with his Black goat standard and short live Lord of Harrenhal.
    Also the fits with number 13 as commander of the “Brave Companions ”
    1: Vargo Hoat
    2: Urswyck
    3:Septon Utt
    4:Qyburn
    5:Shagwell
    6:Zollo
    7:Timeon
    8:Pyg
    9:Iggo
    10:Togg Joth
    11:Three toes
    12:Rorge
    13:Biter

    He was fed to himself as last supper most likely roasted, as the Mountain must have limits to barbarism. Ser Gregor killed Vargo before his return to Kings landing possibly slitting his throat.

    Pun trivia : What is Dark stars boring cousin called ?

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    • Hey Thunderclap. First off, we know that in the annals of the NW it is written that the LH possessed a sword of dragonsteel with which he was specifically said to slay Others, and that the Other could not stand against it. That implies he got a new sword after his old one broke, or else he had it reforged.

      Second, I was not thinking of Vargo, but someone more important, but you are in fact correct of course, with his black steel goat horns, his group of 13 (nice job there), being the Lord of Harrenhall, being “roast goat,” a sacrifice who is burned, he also likes to sack septs and pry out the gemstone eyes of the Mother.. he’s showing us the dark version of the horned god, clearly. But there is some one else… I won’t give it away though.

      Dimstar?

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