One of the biggest differences between Game of Thrones the HBO show and A Song of Ice and Fire the book series by George R. R. Martin is the presence of a leader of the Others. Despite his disappointing death by knife-wielding trampoline assassin girl, the Night King was for a while a terrifying force leading the white walkers and the army of the living dead down from the north to snuff out all life in Westeros. For me, he was at his most terrifying when he was able to perceive Bran inside of Bran’s weirwoodnet vision and leave that ice mark on his arm… anything that can haunt your dreams is a different level of scary. Again, he went out like a chump – after showing himself impervious to raw dragonfire, he’s going to be shattered by a piece of obsidian? – but the simple fact of his presence on the show highlights the glaring absence of any sort of equivalent character in the books. There is of course an ancient tale of a “Night’s King” in Westerosi legend, which we’ll discuss, but he was supposedly a man who lived and died long ago, and no has seen any sign of him since.
Yes, the white walkers of the woods of Westeros that George Martin has written about appear to have no leader – but I’m here today to tell you that that was not always the case. Not only was there once a King and Queen of the Others, I believe that the first Night’s King and Queen were in fact the creators of the Others. Later in this video series, I’ll tell you who the original Night’s King was, and who might emerge as new Night’s King, a new “leader of the others.” So strap in and let’s dive back into the symbolism of the Others to find their origins.
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Alright, now at the end of Symbolism of the Others: the Kingsguard – which you’ve hopefully watched – I left you with a cliffhanger. After spending twenty minutes convincing you beyond the white shadow of a doubt that the white knights of the Kingsguard are serving as symbolic proxies for the Others, dressed in all the same descriptive icy language, I asked the question “why did George do this” and then ended the video. You all seem to have liked that; I got a ton of great comments and theories on what George is saying. Many of you zeroed in on the fact that the Kingsguard were created to guard the king, which implies the Others should have a king, just like they do on the show, or maybe even a queen, or both! I think the Others did have both a king and queen in the past, and will have one or both again soon. Of course we have to start with the original, the OG Night’s King and Queen.
Bran hears the legend of Night’s King from Old Nan of course, and he relays it to the reader in ASOS. It’s a slightly longer quote, but one of the best, and I’ve brought in a talented pinch voice actor:
The gathering gloom put Bran in mind of another of Old Nan’s stories, the tale of Night’s King. He had been the thirteenth man to lead the Night’s Watch, she said; a warrior who knew no fear. “And that was the fault in him,” she would add, “for all men must know fear.” A woman was his downfall; a woman glimpsed from atop the Wall, with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars. Fearing nothing, he chased her and caught her and loved her, though her skin was cold as ice, and when he gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well.
He brought her back to the Nightfort and proclaimed her a queen and himself her king, and with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will. For thirteen years they had ruled, Night’s King and his corpse queen, till finally the Stark of Winterfell and Joramun of the wildlings had joined to free the Watch from bondage. After his fall, when it was found he had been sacrificing to the Others, all records of Night’s King had been destroyed, his very name forbidden.
The first thing that I want point out here is that “sacrificing to the Others” almost certainly means “making Others,” or more specifically, giving up your male children to be transformed into Others. Up north beyond the Wall, we meet a nasty old wildling named Craster who also “sacrifices to the Others,” which Jon describes as “giving his sons to the wood,” meaning the “white walkers of the wood.” Gilly, afraid for her own son, tells Jon that “he gives his boys to the gods,” going on to elaborate that she means “The cold gods, the ones in the night. The white shadows.”
Then, after Gilly asks Sam to help her escape with her son, saying “If you don’t take him, they will,” Sam asks who “they” are…
“The boy’s brothers,” said the old woman on the left. “Craster’s sons. The white cold’s rising out there, crow. I can feel it in my bones. These poor old bones don’t lie.”
As you can see, it’s pretty clear that sacrificing to the Others means giving your sons to be transformed into Others. We may not know what that transformation process entails, but we can see that Craster’s wives all think of the white walkers as Craster’s sons, as brothers to Gilly’s son and to one another. We can see a nice parallel to the Kingsguard here; the Kingsguard are a brotherhood of celibate knights, and so are the Others, since they are all male, with many of them being literal brothers, and the fact they require male babies from their worshippers implies that they cannot reproduce on their own.
Ergo, when we read about Night’s King and Queen “sacrificing to the Others,” we can assume they were creating sons to be turned into Others. But there’s one key difference from what Night’s King and Queen were doing and what Craster was doing with Gilly and his other “wives”: Night’s King’s “corpse queen” was not a mortal woman like Gilly and the other women at Craster’s Keep, but a magical woman. She had “skin as white as the moon” that was “as cold as ice,” and most tellingly, she has the signature “eyes like blue stars” which signifies her as a being animated by the cold ice magic of the Others. A child born by such a woman might already come out of the womb with an icy nature, perhaps already having begun the transformation into an Other. Honestly, a mortal human baby could never gestate in a womb “cold as ice,” so I think we have to assume the babies were magical entities themselves, animated by ice magic just like their mother.
Her “corpse queen” description is probably not literal, as it’s hard to imagine an undead being in this universe giving birth. But as my esteemed colleague Durran Durrandon points out, we have seen a magical woman who has far outlived her mortal span taking someone’s seed and soul to birth magical shadow entities before… it’s just that everything was coded in the language of fire instead of ice, and the shadows were the wrong color.
As I was saying, it is an established fact in this universe that magical women can take the seed of a mortal man and give birth to magical shadow entities:
“You are the mother of darkness. I saw that under Storm’s End, when you gave birth before my eyes.”
“Is the brave Ser Onions so frightened of a passing shadow? Take heart, then. Shadows only live when given birth by light, and the king’s fires burn so low I dare not draw off any more to make another son. It might well kill him.” Melisandre moved closer. “With another man, though . . . a man whose flames still burn hot and high . . . if you truly wish to serve your king’s cause, come to my chamber one night. I could give you pleasure such as you have never known, and with your life-fire I could make . . .”
“. . . a horror.” Davos retreated from her. “I want no part of you, my lady. Or your god. May the Seven protect me.”
Melisandre and Davos are of course referring to the “shadowbaby” that Mel birthed beneath Storm’s End, a shadow which Davos immediately recognized as Stannis. Stannis experiences the killing of Renly while dreaming, which was also done by shadowbaby, so we know that he remains linked to his shadow son and that it is made of his essence, his “life-fires” and Mel puts it.
This is more or less a perfect, temperature-inverted parallel here: Night’s Queen, a being animated by ice magic, the takes the seed and soul of Night’s King and creates magical white shadow beings, while Melisandre, animated by fire magic, draws from the life-fires of Stannis to make magical black shadow beings. These shadows do appear to be somewhat similar in nature though, as they are both created to kill and both are susceptible to magical wards – Mel says she has to birth the shadowbaby inside the walls of Storm’s End because
…this Storm’s End is an old place. There are spells woven into the stones. Dark walls that no shadow can pass—ancient, forgotten, yet still in place.”
Similarly, Samwell tells Bran what Coldhands told him about the Wall: it’s “more than just ice and stone,” and that “There are spells woven into it … old ones, and strong” that prevents Coldhands from passing. Presumably these spells are the ones which keep the Others out, and so we are left with Mel’s shadows and the white shadows of the north both being kept out by magical wards, and therefore similar types of entities on some level.
The primary difference, besides color and ice vs. fire, is that the shadowbabies Mel and Stannis make do not stick around like the Others do. However it’s easy to imagine that there might be some further sorcery involved in getting such a shadow child to have a semi-permanent body as the Others do. Some sort of shadow-binding perhaps, or further human sacrifice, or the involvement of weirwood magic, which also seems to be a part of the process of creating the Others (and I’ll have a “symbolism of the Others: the Weirwoods” video coming soon to talk about that).
“Sacrificing to the Others,” then, is essentially a euphemism; what Night’s King and Queen created at the Nightfort was a white shadow factory. They were creating their own Kingsguard of snowy white knights in ice armor. Their own white swords.
So that’s pretty cool, right? George is showing us a big secret about the creation of the Others by using Mel and Stannis’s shadowbaby creation as a symbolic proxy, just like the Kingsguard serve as symbolic proxies for the Others. George is showing us that a magical woman can, under the right circumstances, co-opt the normal human birthing process to create magical shadow entities, and all we have to do is flip fire for ice and we have a pretty viable method for creating the Others. We playfully call Mel and Stannis’s shadow child a “shadowbaby,” but it’s actually a full grown shadow clone of Stannis, so it stands to reason Night’s Queen was actually giving birth to full-grown Others. One thinks of the five Others in the prologue who emerged from the woods to support the one Waymar was fighting being named as “twins to the first.” They are shadow clones as well – and just as Mel’s shadows are clones of King Stannis, Night’s Queen’s white shadows would have been clones of Night’s King, from whose seed and soul she drew off of to make them.
All of this makes it likely that this is indeed the origin of the white walkers, that Night’s King and Queen made the first Others. Craster and Gilly can’t make them directly, because Gilly isn’t animated by blue star eye magic and her womb isn’t “cold as ice,” but Night’s King and Queen could have. They didn’t need white walkers to have already existed to make more, and what’s the point of showing us this if not to show us the origin of the first Others?
It’s important to understand that Melisandre is more than a magical woman; she’s a human being who has traded in her mortality to become fully “powered by R’hllor.” That means she no longer needs to eat to survive and barely needs to sleep, saying instead that “R’hllor provided her with all the nourishment her body needed,” but that that was something “best concealed from mortal men,” I guess because that would like freak everyone out or something to know she eats fire for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Davos and Jon both notice that Mel’s skin is hot to the touch and that warmth pours off of her like she was a human furnace, and that’s pretty comparable to the Night Queen having “skin as cold as ice.” And just as Night’s Queen’s “eyes like blue stars” are a tip-off that she is powered by ice magic, Melisandre has eyes like “two red stars shining in the dark.” Heck, George even had a blue and green version of a Melisandre table-top gaming piece commissioned… looks like Night’s Queen to me!
The point here is that if a mortal woman can somehow transform herself into a fire entity capable of birthing magical shadow beings, then the same must be true of ice magic, and indeed, my friend Durran Durrandon suggests that’s exactly what Night’s Queen was, some sort of ice priestess. This is another clue that Night’s Queen was the origin of the Others, because we can see the order of the process that’s implied: first, a human woman transforms themselves over time via ice or fire magic, and then at some point they become capable of birthing magical shadow clones via that ice or fire magic. Between Craster and his white walker sons and Stannis and Melisandre’s shadow children, we’ve been handed every step of the process to make a white walker – save for the weirwood magic element, which we have to save for another video – and thus Night’s King and Queen are revealed as the father and mother of the Others.
And now it’s time for timeline heresy!
Accordingly, I also tend to believe that Night’s King and Queen ruled during the Long Night, when all the white walkers attacked, not shortly after as is implied by the line about Night’s King being “the thirteenth man to lead the Watch.” There are so many ways around that line though – it’s about as solid as Ned Stark’s paper shield in the throne room of the Red Keep. Start with the fact that we are talking about 5,000 – 10,000 year-old history that wasn’t written down until thousands of years later, none of the details of which should be definitively taken as literal and factual. For example, the number thirteen may be symbolic – after all, Night’s King was also said to have ruled for thirteen years, and I suppose maybe it’s just a coincidence that he was the 13th Lord Commander who ruled for thirteen years… but then we have the last hero story, which occurs roughly in the same time and place and involves one guy with twelve companions for yet another thirteen. Some have speculated that the last hero and his dozen companions could have become Night’s King and the first Others, or it could be that Night’s King and Queen made twelve Others for their “Kingsguard.” For what it’s worth, the HBO show did give us twelve white walkers flanking the Night King when they took Craster’s son to the White Walker temple for transformation. Of course neither George nor HBO would be the first to make a weird version of Christ and the twelve disciples, and thus when I see all these thirteens in the Night’s King and last hero story, they strike me as a number chosen for symbolism more than anything else.
Consider also the part of the Night’s King myth where Old Nan says that “Night’s King was only a man by light of day, but the night was his to rule.” Is he some sort of werewolf or something? Did he transform into a powerful wizard at night only? Seems like you’d just go fight him in the day then. More likely, the night that he ruled was the Long Night, it seems to me. Night’s King… ruled the Long Night… think about it. It’s not that crazy, really. For what it’s worth, thirteen years seems like about the right length of time for the Long Night to me.
Here’s a good question: why would there be white walkers lurking close to the Nightfort to give babies to if the white walkers had just been defeated in the War for the Dawn fairly recently? If they’re back prowling again only a hundred years after they were defeated, I’d think we’d have been hearing about white walkers attacks all through Westerosi history – but instead, we hear about nothing about any white walker activity in between the Long Night and their recent stirrings gearing up for the new Long Night that is surely coming.
Then we have the fact that the Night’s Watch supposedly received gifts of dragonglass knives during the Age of Heroes, but the Age of heroes supposedly comes before the Long Night, when the Watch was supposedly established. Similarly, Bran the Builder supposedly built the Wall, but is thought of as having lived in the Age of Heroes too, before the Long Night. This type of mixed-up chronology is just what we should expect from 8,000 year-old word-of mouth history about magical events of course, and is intentional on the part of the author. Can’t truss it!
We also have to wonder about the part of the original Night’s Watch oath that talks about “I am the watcher on the walls” – note the ‘walls’ plural – because ever since the creation of the Wall, they would have been “the Watchers on the Wall,” really. This may mean nothing, or may indicate that the Night’s Watch may have been formed from a previous fighting force which guarded “walls,” plural, like the walls of a fortress, perhaps even before the Wall was made. If there was such a previous fighting force, perhaps they had twelve commanders, with Night’s King being the rebellious thirteenth.
Then we have the Nightfort, the place where Night’s King and Queen created their white shadows. It’s said to be the oldest castle on the Wall, which I think is true, but I think it may actually be older than the Wall, for two reasons. One, if any humans were involved in building the Wall – which is a big if, granted – they would have first needed a base of operations to work from. Perhaps it was some long-vanished ringfort or something, but if the Nightfort dates back thousands of years to the beginning of the Watch anyway, it may well have been that first human stronghold in the area.
The second reason I think the Nightfort may have come before the Wall is the highly unique weirwood organism we find there. Some fifty feet or more underground, Sam and Bran and company encounter the Black Gate, the peculiar talking weirwood face which guards a secret tunnel beneath the Wall and only opens for a Night’s Watchmen reciting his vows… but then on the surface above, we see a young weirwood sapling pushing up through the flagstones and growing towards the whole in the ceiling. Judging by the size, extent, and depth of the weirwood roots at Bloodraven’s cave, it seems that weirwood trees are better thought of a fungus-like organisms which exist primarily underground and occasionally sprout trees above ground. Thus it’s almost certain that the talking weirwood gate below the Nightfort and the young weirwood above are part of the same weirwood orgamism, which would make it extremely large, and therefore very old and very sacred to the children of the forest and those who worship the Old Gods.
Moreover, the talking weirwood face itself is possibly the weirdest and most unique magical thing we’ve seen anywhere in Westeros – it’s the only talking weirwood of any kind that we’ve ever seen! Chekov’s silent tree face finally spoke! Therefore it seems likely that the Nightfort would have been built around this special weirwood organism, which would have been here first… just as Winterfell was built around the heart tree and probably the crypts.
At the center of the grove an ancient weirwood brooded over a small pool where the waters were black and cold. “The heart tree,” Ned called it. The weirwood’s bark was white as bone, its leaves dark red, like a thousand bloodstained hands. A face had been carved in the trunk of the great tree, its features long and melancholy, the deep-cut eyes red with dried sap and strangely watchful. They were old, those eyes; older than Winterfell itself. They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true; they had watched the castle’s granite walls rise around them.
It’s my belief that all the first First Men castles were built around weirwoods, not just Winterfell, as by the time these castles were built, the First Men would have been worshipping them, fully in awe of the power of the greenseers and weirwood trees. This is clearly the case for the warg family known as the Starks, and with something as old and unique as the talking weirwood face organism, it seems logical that the Nightfort would have been built around it. The same logic applies to the location of the Wall – if the weirwood organism is older than the Wall, then it’s likely the location of the Wall was dictated by the location of the Nightfort weirwood… thing.
So the order of events I am picturing is this: the Nightfort is built around the weirwood organism there for some magical reason, either by Night’s King or by someone before; at some point around the beginning of the Long Night, Night’s King takes the Nightfort as his seat and creates the white walkers with Night’s Queen (with the weirwood magic likely playing a role). They invade Westeros, the War for the Dawn is fought and won by the good guys, and the Wall was likely built soon after to keep the Others out like most people think, or perhaps repaired or rebuilt if some form of the Wall existed before the white walker invasion.
So what we have here is a bunch of fog of history, because our “history” has essentially become legend. The symbolism, however, all points towards the Night’s King and Queen being the creators of the Others who lived during the Long Night, as you’ve just seen. The white walker symbolism of the Kingsguard implies that the king and queen of the white walkers is an important thing, and it implies that the Others were created by Night’s King and Queen to guard Night’s Queen and King, just as the Kinguard was created by Visenya and Aegon to guard the royal family. Then, Stannis, Melisandre, and Craster show us how these implications translate in actual magical acts that can happen in this universe, how an ice priestess like Night’s Queen could potentially create the Others from scratch.
As I’ll explain in the next couple of videos, “Night’s King” is just as much an important ASOIAF archetype as Azor Ahai is, with multiple figures playing the symbolic role of Night’s King at various times, and Night’s King is always implied as a leader – and father – of the Others. King Stannis, for example, who does the shadow creation routine with Mel that mirrors Other creation, takes up residence at the Nightfort, where Night’s King lived. Tons more on Night King Stannis coming in the next video, don’t you fear (Night’s King was a man who knew no fear, and neither should you).
The same is true of Night’s Queen: it’s an archetype played by multiple people, and those people always do symbolic things that represent the creation of the Others. One of the reasons why the Moons of Ice and Fire podcast series is so may hours long is because I follow all of the Night’s King and Queen parallel characters, and there are a nice handful of them. I’m doing a more condensed thing here, but check out Moons of Ice and Fire if you like this topic and want to see how, say, Val, Gilly, Jeyne Pool, Alys Karstark, Sansa, or Lyanna play the Night’s Queen role. Lyanna’s the important one, she gives birth to the Prince That Was Promised to the Others, Jon Snow, who dreams of wearing ice armor and oh gosh I’m giving away a future video in this series.
Even more important than the symbolism – I know, I know, HERESY! – is the valley of the shadow of narrative sense through which all theories must pass. If the role of “Night’s King” really is to be some sort of “King of the White Walkers,” then it makes far more narrative sense for him to have existed during the Long Night, when the white walkers invaded Westeros for the one and only time in history. And if we are to see a new Night’s King rise to lead the Others – and believe is there ever a lot of foreshadowing for that – then it stands to reason that a Night’s King led their invasion of Westeros the first time around.