One of my favorite things about ASOIAF is the way that George R. R. Martin uses symbolism to give us clues about secret things. Take the Others for example, the mysterious white walkers of the woods. We only see them on-page twice in the entire series: we see six of them in the prologue of AGOT, and Sam kills one with a dragonglass knife in ASOS. That really is amazing when you consider the long, pale shadow they cast over the entire story.
This is good writing on Martin’s part – he likes his magic to remain mysterious, and things like Asshai-by-the-Shadow or the Others would loose some of their mystique if we saw too much of them. Luckily for us though, Martin is quite the clever writer and has thoughtfully hidden clues about the Others in the story. One of the ways he does this is through the use of a symbolic proxy, which in this case would be the Kingsguard.
By using the same descriptive language for both the Others and the White Knights of the Kingsguard, our author is creating an intentional symbolic parallel which encourages us to think about the Kingsguard as stand-ins for the Others. First we’ll take a take a look at the basic set of descriptions of the Others, and then compare those to the Kingsguard and you will quickly see what I mean.
The AGOT prologue is where we get most of our descriptions of the Others, and here is the very first one:
Will saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone.
The term “white shadow” is the most common description of the Others, and sometimes it’s “cold shadow” or just “shadow.” For example, Lord Commander Mormont speaks of “white shadows in the woods” to describe the rising threat of the Others, and when Gilly speaks with Jon about saving her baby from being given to the Others, they both use the “white shadow” moniker. In AFFC, Sam reports that “Maester Aemon’s woken up and wants to hear about these dragons. He’s talking about bleeding stars and white shadows and dreams…”, and clearly Aemon is catching visions of the end times here, so these white shadows can only be the white walkers..
Sam thinks of the Others as “The white walkers of the wood, the cold shadows”, and Tormund uses similar language to describe them, calling them “shadows with teeth,” and shadows that “never go away” but are always “clinging to your heels” – think about the way your shadow on the sidewalk appears to cling to your heels, but imagine that shadow is a white walker… and now you know how Tormund was feeling.
The basic meaning of the term ‘white shadow’ seems apparent: the Others are shades in some sense, some sort of icy ghost-like entity. It’s also a delightful sort of marriage of opposites: shadows are usually thought of as dark, but these shadows are white and pale.
The second glimpse of the Others in the prologue reinforces all of these ideas:
A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.
These white shadows from the woods have pale, milk white flesh and reflective ice armor, and they’re compared to old bones, which are also white. When we see Sam stab one ASOS, we catch sight of the actual bones of the Others, which are “like milkglass, pale and shiny,” and it also has “bone white hands” in that scene. Again we see the same set of words – milk-pale, bone white, snow white. Only a moment earlier, when the Other dismounted its dead horse to face Sam, we got this line:
The Other slid gracefully from the saddle to stand upon the snow. Sword-slim it was, and milky white.
In a manner of speaking, the Others are like milky white ice people, and the sword symbolism: their bones look like milkglass, which reminds us of Dawn, a shiny white sword, and now the Others themselves are milky white and sword slim. The swords of the Others themselves are called “pale swords” as well, among other things, so we can say that the Others are milky white sword people who wield pale swords and have bones that look like pale swords. Combine all of that with the persistent ‘white shadow’ moniker and the idea of armor made of ice – and those cold blue star eyes, of course – and we have a good basic idea of the language used to bring the Others to life.
And now let’s have a look at those magnificent white knights in the Kingsguard, whose sterling honor is beyond reproach, as we all know. Here’s Tyrion observing Joffrey in ACOK:
Joffrey was galloping at his side, whey-faced, with Ser Mandon Moore a white shadow on his left.
Oh my! What’s a white shadow doing so close to the king? Someone better warn him! Now, recalling that George describes the Others as ‘beautiful’ in interviews, check out Tyrion looking at Joffrey in ACOK:
His two white shadows were always with him; Balon Swann and Mandon Moore, beautiful in their pale plate.
This is terrible – the white shadows have him surrounded! Beautiful they may be, but I wouldn’t trust them. Then at the Battle of the Blackwater, on the bridge of ships, a fallen Tyrion looks up at Ser Mandon:
Finally he rolled over the side and lay breathless and exhausted, flat on his back. Balls of green and orange flame crackled overhead, leaving streaks between the stars. He had a moment to think how pretty it was before Ser Mandon blocked out the view. The knight was a white steel shadow, his eyes shining darkly behind his helm.
I’d love to talk about the meteor-like fiery streaks between the stars, but that’s a different video I’m afraid. Our attention turns to yet another white shadow Kingsguard, and this one certainly has bad intent. This is becoming a theme.
In AFFC, a paranoid Cersei Lannister runs a small council meeting and perceives “shadows closing in around her” as she sees treason lurking everywhere. One of those treasonous shadows is the Kingsguard knight Ser Loras Tyrell, who is standing “behind his little sister, a pale shadow with a longsword on his hip.” Cersei may be paranoid and a bit mad, she’s probably right not to trust Loras, lurking like a pale shadow as he is.
Even when the Kingsguard is looking glorious in the daylight, they manage to look like they are impersonating the Others. This is Sansa’s view of the Hand’s Tourney at Kings Landing during AGOT.
They watched the heroes of a hundred songs ride forth, each more fabulous than the last. The seven knights of the Kingsguard took the field, all but Jaime Lannister in scaled armor the color of milk, their cloaks as white as fresh-fallen snow.
In the AGOT, the ice armor of the Other reflects their surroundings, and in places looks like “as white as new fallen snow,” while here the Kingsguard knights “take the field” with cloaks “as white as fresh-fallen snow.” And when we first meet Ser Barristan Selmy in AGOT, his white enameled scale armor is “as brilliant as a field of new-fallen snow.” Snowy cloaks and snowy armor, I’m telling you, something is up with those white shadow Kingsguard. Also, take notice of the fact that Kingsguard here at the tourney have “scaled armor the color of milk,” which reminds us of the flesh of the Others, which is “as pale as milk.”
Speaking of milky white things, another component of Other’s symbolism is of course the moon. The real Others only come out in the moonlight, and thus we see that the shifting patterns on their ice armor “ran like moonlight on water” and that their pale swords are “alive with moonlight.” We might even think of Night’s King’s corpse queen of legend, who had blue star eyes like the Others and “skin as white as the moon.” With all that in mind, let’s continue looking at descriptions of the Kingsguard. This is Sansa in ACOK:
Below, she could see a short knight in moon-pale armor and a heavy white cloak pacing the drawbridge. From his height, it could only be Ser Preston Greenfield.
Ser Greenfield is wearing the same cloak that was just described as “white as a new-fallen field of snow,” so I guess he’s a whitefield now? But check out that moon-pale armor! That’s the kind of stuff the Others would like to wear, I’m thinking. Now back in AGOT, Ned sees a Kingsguard on that same bridge and the description again fits the Others, but in a slightly different way:
Ser Boros Blount guarded the far end of the bridge, white steel armor ghostly in the moonlight.
Just a moment ago I said that the Others are like white swords themselves, being milky white sword-slim creatures with milkglass-like bones, and the same is true of the knights of the Kingsguard, who are called “the White Swords.” That’s cool, but what’s even cooler is that Boros Blount the white sword has ghostly moonlight playing about him in this scene. And haven’t we seen a pale sword with ghost light and moonlight playing about it?
The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor.
It’s a pale sword looking ghostly in the moonlight, just as Ser Boros is a white sword looking ghostly in the moonlight. Boros is lacking only the faint blue shimmer!
You may recall Jaime Lannister’s weirwood stump dream from ASOS, where he sees not one ghostly white swords, but five.
They were armored all in snow, it seemed to him, and ribbons of mist swirled back from their shoulders.
It’s the snow armor motif again! Now they really sound like white walkers – ghostly white knights armored in snow, with mist swirling from their shoulders? It’s even mentioned that they make no sound when they walk, just as “the Others make no sound.” I mean this is really on the nose. George clearly wants us to think about the Others when we see the Kingsguard.
It’s like one of those “there are two answers” things:
“I’m a milk-pale, ice-armored white shadow, looking ghostly and beautiful in the moonlight. Who am I? There are two answers.”
It could be Others or the Kingsguard!
And we’ve barely even begun to talk about Barristan Selmy!
Let us turn our attention to the last living legend of the Kingsguard, Ser Barristan Selmy. For whatever reason, Barristan has by far the most clues about the Kingsguard working as symbolic stand-ins for the Others. First, his white shadow street cred, and this is from ADWD:
Dany glimpsed Ser Barristan sliding closer, a white shadow at her side.
SO there’s Barry the white shadow, and then when Barristan meets with Skahaz the Shavepate in the dark corridors of the Great Pyramid of Meereen, the text describes them as “A pale shadow and a dark,” with Barristan being the pale shadow. You can take the Kingsguard out of Kings Landing, but he’s still a white shadow, it would seem. Ser Barristan is basically a model example of how to look like an Other, from AGOT through ADWD. Here’s the rest of that quote about Barry’s snow-white armor when Sansa meets him on the road to King’s Landing:
One knight wore an intricate suit of white enameled scales, brilliant as a field of new-fallen snow, with silver chasings and clasps that glittered in the sun. When he removed his helm, Sansa saw that he was an old man with hair as pale as his armor, yet he seemed strong and graceful for all that. From his shoulders hung the pure white cloak of the Kingsguard.
That is one snowy dude! His armor is like a field of new-fallen snow, and his hair matches. Sure sounds like a white walker to me! He’s even graceful, like the Other Sam faced who slid gracefully from its saddle. And did I mention Barry has blue eyes? It’s true. Sweet baby blues to go along with his snowy hair and armor.
Later he grows his beard out and takes the false name “Arstan Whitebeard,” and that thing is made of snow too:
His name was Arstan, but Strong Belwas had named him Whitebeard for his pale whiskers, and most everyone called him that now. He was taller than Ser Jorah, though not so muscular; his eyes were a pale blue, his long beard as white as snow and as fine as silk.
Let me put it this way – if Barristan wanted to dress up as a white walker for Halloween, he’d barely have to do anything at all. Give the man an ice spear and a wee bit of face paint and he’s all set.
When Dany meets him as Whitebeard in ACOK, he’s introduced as an Otherish type of guy:
The other man wore a traveler’s cloak of undyed wool, the hood thrown back. Long white hair fell to his shoulders, and a silky white beard covered the lower half of his face.
The Other man! Ah ha! That explains the snowy hair, beard, and armor. Barristan the ‘other man’ also has a cloak of undyed wool – meaning whitish or milky-white wool – and his white hair and beard are highlighted. The white wool cloak seems a clue that Arstan used to wear a white cloak of the Kingsguard, and indeed, Barry steps right into his classic role and introduces himself to Dany by saving her from the basilisk that the Sorrowful Man was trying kill her with. Later in ADWD, Barristan again saves her life, this time from the warlord Mero, and it’s pretty awesome. Mero has emerged from the crowd of freed slaves to menace Dany, with no protection in sight, untill…
Dany was dimly aware of Missandei shouting for help. A freedman edged forward, but only a step. One quick slash, and he was on his knees, blood running down his face. Mero wiped his sword on his breeches. “Who’s next?”
“I am.” Arstan Whitebeard leapt from his horse and stood over her, the salt wind riffling through his snowy hair, both hands on his tall hardwood staff.
This is Barristan’s big Hollywood moment here, complete with authoritative one-liner and hair blowing gloriously in the wind. It’s snowy white hair, which is cool, but what’s even better is that the way he ends the fight with Mero is a close match to the way the white walker finished off Waymar in the AGOT prologue. If you recall, when the Other shattered Waymar’s sword and wounded his eye, it said that “The Other’s parry was almost lazy,” and after that, the Others waiting in the woods advanced and all stabbed Waymar in “cold butchery.” Now here’s the fight with Barristan and Mero:
Whitebeard put Dany behind him. Mero slashed at his face. The old man jerked back, cat-quick. The staff thumped Mero’s ribs, sending him reeling. Arstan splashed sideways, parried a looping cut, danced away from a second, checked a third mid-swing. The moves were so fast she could hardly follow. Missandei was pulling Dany to her feet when she heard a crack. She thought Arstan’s staff had snapped until she saw the jagged bone jutting from Mero’s calf. As he fell, the Titan’s Bastard twisted and lunged, sending his point straight at the old man’s chest. Whitebeard swept the blade aside almost contemptuously and smashed the other end of his staff against the big man’s temple. Mero went sprawling, blood bubbling from his mouth as the waves washed over him. A moment later the freedmen washed over him too, knives and stones and angry fists rising and falling in a frenzy.
Barristan is “dancing” away from Mero’s strikes, as the Others danced with Ser Waymar. Barristan “thumps” Mero in the ribs before delivering the killing blow, just as the Other first stabs Waymar’s side before shattering his sword and killing him. Mero dies gushing blood from his ruined face, just as Waymar does. Most obviously, the almost contemptuous parry that finishes Mero is followed by the freedmen rushing in to stab him, just as the almost lazy parry of the Other that finished Waymar was followed by the other Others rushing in to stab Waymar. The “knives and stones and angry fists” of the mob are “rising in falling in a frenzy,” which compares very well to the rising and falling swords of Waymar’s cold butchery:
The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. Swords rose and fell, all in a deathly silence. It was cold butchery.
Ser Barristan not only looks like a white walker, he’s even reenacting one of their famous battles in exquisite detail! And for this deed and other find service, Dany rewards with a suit of ice armor. First he’ll need to scrub off that pesky flesh though:
The water, when it came, was only lukewarm, but Selmy lingered in the bath until it had grown cold and scrubbed his skin till it was raw. Clean as he had ever been, he rose, dried himself, and clad himself in whites. Stockings, smallclothes, silken tunic, padded jerkin, all fresh-washed and bleached. Over that he donned the armor that the queen had given him as a token of her esteem. The mail was gilded, finely wrought, the links as supple as good leather, the plate enameled, hard as ice and bright as new-fallen snow.
So, he scrubs off his skin in the cold bath, leaving him a cold skeleton, then suits up into his snow-white ice armor. Once again I say that this is pretty on the nose, since the Others quite literally wear armor made of ice that reflects “as white as new-fallen snow.” Barristan has snow white armor in book one, and here he is in book five with armor “hard as ice and bright as new-fallen snow.”
Hopefully it should be clear by now that the Kingsguard are symbolic parallels to the Others. Barristan shows it the most clearly, but all of these white shadows are consistently wearing some sort of Others symbolism, as you can see. The big question is… what does it mean?
Well, we’ve already made a mockery of the idea of a thirteen minute time limit, so you will have to wait for part 2 for my answer, or you can check out the full theory in the Moons of Ice and Fire series, which you can find in the mythical Astronomy Podcast feed and on my YouTube page. In the meantime, I’d invite you to speculate on what you think this Others / Kingsguard parallel means, because that’s part of the fun! Then join me next time and see what you think of my analysis!