There are several reasons why the commonly believed, purely negative characterization of the Others, aka White Walkers, as evil is incorrect. The first is that George R. R. Martin’s work prior to “A Song of Ice and Fire” has never had a simply evil antagonist or antagonists. They always have their own perspective, which causes them to clash with the hero or heroes. For example, the 1000 Worlds series, including Dying of the Light, and Fevre Dream all have antagonists who have well-articulated, understandable, and relate-able motivations. Even the vampires of Fevre Dream espouse a position that is very believable, natural, and relate-able. None of these antagonists are, by their nature, deemed worthy of extermination. There is always a path to peaceful coexistence.
Second, Martin has repeatedly stated that he has written “A Song of Ice and Fire” according to a set of beliefs that do not accommodate the Manicheanism or moral absolutism of good v. evil. Besides his consistent avowal that he creates characters with shades of grey, his announced doctrine is that of William Faulkner: “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart at war with itself.” Good v. evil struggles do not admit of any doubts, present no moral dilemmas, and have no shading. It would be entirely contrary to Martin’s pronounced philosophy, which he has adhered to without fail in all of his works, to have antagonists who were simply evil.
Similarly, he has also declared his purpose in writing a fantasy that defies reader expectations, the Tolkien-like storylines of his predecessors, and to a degree even the model Tolkien established with the good battling the evil of Sauron and his orcs. Martin’s self-described “dirty” fantasy for adults rejects simple, typical story-telling in favor of nuance, complexity, and “fog of war” issues to make the story more real. Even prototypical evil beings like the Nazis were also human beings that Martin has cited as an example of there being multiple points of view in every conflict – the “hero is the villain of the other side” idea.
Third, Martin’s recounting of his own personal history and the histories of many of his generation – the baby boomers – militates against pure evil antagonists. This is a man and generation that came of age during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Movement rejected the white supremacists’ vilification of African-Americans, and, more importantly, the kinds of arguments that involved vilification became anathema to those supporting civil rights. The Vietnam War drove the point home for many baby boomers, including self-avowedly Martin, in that the “other”, even in the Cold War, was not a necessary enemy, wars were a matter of choice, and peace should always be the ultimate goal. These were eye-opening, epiphany-laden moments. Martin and many other baby boomers permanently changed as a result of these years. A product of this era would never create a story of good v. evil with good triumphing because of a war of annihilation.
Fourth, there are quite a few pieces of evidence that suggest the pure evil perspective towards the Others/White Walkers are the results of Martin’s oft-deployed unreliable narrator. Nan’s stories, our sole source for the Long Night and the Night’s King besides The World Book’s recounting of same, are folk tales with only a grain of truth. The encounters with the Others/White Walkers are those of antagonists in battle. Both sides look aggressive, bellicose, and ruthless to the other in war. The offerings of babies by Craster, the Night’s Watch as evidenced by the Black Gate, and the people of the North in the time of the Right of the First Night (Snows for the Snow Gate) suggest something other than unrelenting, insatiable enmity between the Others/White Walkers and humanity. It is the very gaps in the historical record Samwell Tarly notes to Lord Commander Jon Snow that point to a gulf between the truth and what is truly known about the Others/White Walkers. Even Martin’s use of the term “the others” to designate the in-story references to the White Walkers is suggestive of sociology’s maxims concerning the “othering” of rival cultures and societies in place of understanding.
Last, and certainly not least, Martin has described the Others as like the Aos Sidhe – the fairy creatures of Celtic folk tales. A perusal of some of these folk tales leads to the conclusion that these fairy folk have great power, but are also very much like humans such that they often court, marry, and have children with mere mortals. They are also powerful beings connected with natural forces. Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Winter Queen” is a prominent example of such a being derived from the pagan tales preceding the Christianization of Scandinavia. The same is true of the Viking tales that have similar creatures. Even the Frost Giants and Dark Elves that were rendered into more traditional evil forces for the Asgardians to fight in “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World” lived side by side with the Asgardians only occasionally having a confrontation with Thor et al.
For the foregoing reasons, it is highly unlikely that the Others are evil villains common to most fantasy and adventure stories. It is probable instead that they are creatures with human-like qualities that are playing a part in somebody else’s game who are employing what Preston Jacobs refers to as “the Kimdisi philosophy”. Taken from the culture Martin introduced in Dying of the Light, the Kimdisi fostered discord among their enemies, weakening them through subterfuge, in-fighting, and factionalism. In the Song of Ice and Fire setting, the practitioners of the Kimdisi philosophy are likely the Children of the Forest or Singers of the Earth. Small, poorly armed, and lacking numbers, the Children or Singers are humanity’s rivals. As Dorian the Historian among others have postulated, the Children would have good reason to set humanity against itself and foster a war of annihilation between humanity and the Others. The Children would be the only beneficiaries of such a conflict. A reading of the Others as simply evil is, therefore, mistaken.
Many people have proffered counterarguments to the points raised above. They are all refutable.
1) Fantasy works follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the general rules of fantasy. This requires an evil antagonist so that the hero or heroes can successfully complete their journey proving their heroism.
Martin has stated multiple times that he does not abide by the rules of fantasy, particularly what he has derided as Disneyland fantasy. While certain narrative structures must be obeyed such as beginning, middle, and end with character development in between, there is no rule that the antagonist must be evil. In point of fact, the trend of the “new fantasy” since the 1970s has been a rejection of pure good versus pure evil. More realistic fantasy with antagonists that have more sophisticated characterization, points of view, and arguable moral stances has become the standard rather than the simple conflict of good and evil in earlier works. Technically, the myths and legends that Campbell and others have analyzed also have many a tale in which the antagonist has a point of view and the hero is not particularly praiseworthy. For example, Thor and Gilgamesh are often jerks with many negative character traits. In conclusion, there is no particular reason for “A Song of Ice and Fire” to have villains who are evil.
2) A Song of Ice and Fire already has the Boltons, Tywin and Cersei Lannister, and the Martell and Varys/Illyrio conspiracies to provide nuanced, complex villains. With that purpose filled, there is no reason to have more such villains. Therefore, the Others fulfill the needed role of a pure evil, force of nature, Satan-esque villain.
Besides adhering to the aforementioned and refuted “rules of fantasy” argument, it is actually inconsistent for Martin to have pure evil villains alongside his nuanced, complex villains. If an author truly believes that “evil is solely within the human heart”, as Martin has repeatedly stated, he will not violate that tenet to write a more traditional morality tale even if it is a representation of the current political machinations around climate change. If anything, the Others are a result of climate change rather than a personification of a natural threat. A good author like Martin is not going to change his stripes. Putting in evil characters to make a contrast with the nuanced ones is contrary to the entire project of using nuance, complexity, and difficult moral choices to make for compelling story-telling. Similarly, a Jesus-like sacrifice for the good of humanity is neither complex nor shocking. There is no need for the Others to be evil villains.
3) The Others’ actions to date and everything we know about them have demonstrated their inhumanity, their pure evil natures.
Despite the intensity of their brooding omnipresence over the entire story, we know extraordinarily little about the Others or White Walkers. We have only a few sources of information: Nan’s folk tales, the encounter between the Night’s Watch patrol led by Ser Waymar Royce at the very start of the books, the battle at the Fist of the First Men with Lord Commander Jeor Mormont’s Great Ranging, and what Tormund related to Lord Commander Jon Snow. In all of these accounts, all from their opponents, the Others are ruthless, aggressive, extremely powerful both in personal combat and in their ability to control corpses and the weather (ice powers), and very human. The last point is essential in refuting the idea that these encounters prove an evil nature. The Others have armor, show craftsmanship, have language, and laugh, albeit sadistically, as they toy with Royce before killing him.
In addition to these human traits, the Others act with intelligence, foresight, and organization. These are not beasts or forces of nature. They are a humanoid society with all of the forms of humanoid, sentient beings. Even the Other Samwell Tarly slays with his obsidian/dragon glass dagger exhibits pain and suffering upon receiving the mortal wound. Again, these are not killing machines, but individuals with very real personhood.
Finally, it is impossible to render comprehensive judgments based on such limited information. The invaders of Nan’s tale could easily be the English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch in the Americas or any one of a number of European and Asian peoples including the Russians, Germans, Romans, and Persians let alone Americans in their various wars. Seeing an entire people solely through the behavior of their warriors is misleading at best. It is certainly not cause to judge them evil and hope for their extermination.
4) The Others are like the Borg in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or cancer. They hate all warmth, are seeking the extinction of all life, and will not stop until they consume the planet. They are, in other words, the Tolkien version of evil.
This characterization of the Others stems almost entirely from Nan’s story of the Long Night. It misses several elements to that tale. First, the Others come after the fall of the Long Night and the extreme cold that killed. Their conquest is made possible by the Long Night, not the other way around. The tale’s description of them as hating all warmth is either a description of their ability to seek out their opponents or a characterization from the point of view of a tale that demonizes them. There is no possible way anyone could know that they hate all warmth given that no one is known to have communicated with them.
In addition, building on this notion of how folk tales work, these oral traditions are meant to be fanciful embodiments of community values. The fight against the Others is a cultural origination story meant, structured, and formulated to justify aspects of Northern society including the Night’s Watch and the system of landed nobility with martial characteristics. In no respect should these tales be taken as the literal truth. Martin, as a student of history and folk tales, is expert in this topic and likely knows this well.
Seen from the Others’ or a neutral perspective, the Others are not all that aggressive, genocidal, or particularly more bellicose than humanity. The Royce expedition and Great Ranging were invasions of the Land of Always Winter – the Others’ territory. The Others’ military forces were acting in self-defense. The Wildlings, who have also come under attack from the Others as Tormund related, are also in the Far North. As for the idea that somehow the Night’s Watch is entitled to move north of the Wall, the proponents of this notion need to somehow explain how a defensive wall denotes something other than the full extent of the territory being guarded.
5) The Others raise the dead, including those they slaughter, to fight for them. If that isn’t proof positive of their evil, then nothing is.
Traditionally, fantasy stories, horror tales, and works of fiction have signified the evil nature of the villain by the complete subservience of their minions. Raising the dead to fight for you is a tried and true sign that your cause is so nefarious no one would voluntarily join it. The minion trope is so ubiquitous NBC/Universal animation had little difficulty making their antihero villain/hero, Gru, have a veritable horde of quirky, yellow, overall-clad helpers literally known as minions. But, in George R. R. Martin’s post-Vietnam/Watergate era, the standard villain stereotypes, even that of undead minions, are passé. When evil is relative, in the eye of the beholder, raising the dead is simply another tactic in warfare signifying nothing other than one’s otherworldly abilities like the technique of skin changing animals or dragon taming.
After all, the classic test of morality is Hillel’s maxim: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Simply put, we would have no problem with our heroes raising the dead to fight for them (Think Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings” in “Return of the King”.) so we should not have a problem with the Others’ deployment of corpses. After all, reverence for corpses is a cultural concept that varies from society to society. Martin’s work is nothing if not an exploration of moral relativism.
6) The Others reproduce themselves parasitically – by converting human babies and taking human women. Their failure to procreate naturally proves their exploitative, evil nature.
First, sterility is not indicative of an evil nature. Lots of people are sterile and this does not mean they are morally flawed in any way, shape, or form. Second, lots of societies have a need to look outside their tribe or group for eligible females. Polygamous societies, for example, by their very nature create surplus males in the lower orders and, historically, have often been expansionist to acquire females including the Mongols, the Muslim polities, and traditional Mormons, who will expel the surplus males if they cannot find wives. Knowing only the combat forces of the Others also limits our ability to characterize their lifestyles as parasitical or cancerous. Also, the Others collecting “Snows” – the bastards of the North – is not particularly predatory if one takes into account the fact that these babies are being abandoned like the practice of giving unwanted babies to the monastery or nunnery depending on the sex of the baby. This is not to posit that the Others are warrior monks (a distinct possibility given the medieval setting), but they are fulfilling a charitable function in adopting these unwanted children. In conclusion, there is no evidence they are parasitical or preying on humanity.
7) In order to have meaning and tell a proper story, the holy trinity of Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow’s sacrificial attack of annihilation against the Others using the dragons like the nuclear weapons they are has to be against an existential threat to humanity.
The prediction that Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow are the dragon riders and, therefore, the holy trinity of “A Song of Ice and Fire”, therefore, have to die Jesus-like to save humanity is widespread. Once more, in order to be heroes they have to be fighting evil. To make self-sacrifice worthwhile, as part of the Jesus story, it has to be for something big. There is nothing bigger than saving humanity. Saving humanity requires an existential threat. For this prediction, the Others fulfill that role to a “t”. This prediction has a resonance, sounds true, because it is in that familiar Biblical framework. Jesus dies for humanity’s sins. The father, son, and holy ghost of “A Song of Ice and Fire” are the main point of view characters: Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Tyrion. It is a comforting, familiar tale. For that reason alone, it is unlikely to be true in Martin’s dirty, overturning-tropes fantasy tale. But, there is also Martin’s stated description of the ending as “bittersweet”. The deaths of the three major characters with the three dragons is hardly bittersweet. It is just tragic, depressing, and nihilist.
It is also not believable considering that there is no particular reason why three dragon riders of even minimal competence would have any difficulty annihilating the Others. The crew of the Enola Gay had few problems dropping an atomic bomb on Japan and our three dragon riders would have even fewer obstacles. Dragon fire is a perfect weapon against the Others (Dragon glass and steel are merely fire made solid.) and the wights, who are very flammable. Even one dragon rider would have little difficulty taking out all of the Others and their wights with a systematic overpass of Other settlements. There is no great sacrifice here. It is an easy genocide.
That conclusion is also why the theory is inconsistent with Martin, his work, and “A Song of Ice and Fire” to this point. Genocidal behavior is always wrong regardless of the enemy. Possessing nuclear weapons – the dragons – nullifies any moral reason, any self-defense argument the heroes might have had. Contrary to proving their heroism by annihilating the Others, the trio would have become villains, in other words evil. The peace-seeking, conscientious objector to the Vietnam War Martin would never have his protagonists commit such an atrocity. The Others simply cannot be the existential threat whose extinction by dragon would kill Daenerys, Jon Snow, and Tyrion making them heroes in the process. This ending does not make sense logically, thematically, or morally.
8) ASOIAF is a Lovecraftian world. Therefore, the Others are “deep ones” – primordial, otherworldly evil.
There is little to no doubt Martin is a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and has put Lovecraftian elements in all of his work let alone “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Hence, it is not unreasonable to conclude that “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a Lovecraftian tale with indescribable horrors. “The Forsaken” sample chapter Martin recently read at Balticon is usually proffered as definitive proof that “A Song of Ice and Fire” is Lovecraftian and, subsequently, contains all of the elements of a Lovecraft story including Cthulhu-like “deep ones”. However, there are lots of counters to this “eldritch apocalypse” vision for “A Song of Ice and Fire”.
First and foremost, the propositions that govern everything in “A Song of Ice and Fire” – “evil is in the human heart”, “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart at war with itself”, this is a critique of Tolkien, and the characters are shades of grey – do not support in any way, shape, or form a Lovecraftian tale of evil incarnate. Not to belabor the point, but, if you have not gotten that by now and reasoned through to that conclusion, you have not been paying attention. Deep ones are not a shade of grey, combatting them would not produce a heart at war with itself, and would be very much a Tolkien story. Sauron is Lucifer. The Balrog is a deep one. It is not that Tolkien was taking his cues directly from Lovecraft, but they share a similar intellectual, cultural milieu – a milieu that has little or nothing to do with Martin’s, by the way.
Second, focusing on the Lovecraftian elements in “A Song of Ice and Fire” and The World Book does a disservice to all the other authors Martin has paid homage to and drawn from including, but not limited to, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock (an author described as the anti-Tolkien by the way), and Roger Zelazny. These authors and more, their themes, their characters, and their philosophies are in stark contrast with that of Lovecraft, and they too litter “A Song of Ice and Fire” from R’hllor, to Valyrians, to albino characters, to the Faith of the Seven, character names, plot lines, and larger themes about identity, war, morality, religion, and perception to name a few. Martin is a quilter – someone who draws on a host of influences and sources to create his worlds. There are Lovecraftian elements, but they are outnumbered and out-influenced by a voluminous group of writers, Martin’s own formative environment, and his very different politics. (Martin is a “salad bowl”/melting pot liberal; Lovecraft was a nativist.)
Third, Martin has repeatedly said that he has set out to create a fantasy. While he has admitted that his work cuts across genres including horror, making a fantasy means that you are not going to include science fiction elements. With all apologies to Preston Jacobs, Martin’s reply to the theories about the orbit or dual suns causing the years long seasons – It’s magic! – obviates the presence of extraterrestrial deep ones. That an ice dragon is involved in the creation of the Others like in the non-“A Song of Ice and Fire” novella, “The Ice Dragon”, is more likely than interstellar beings.
Fourth, while Martin uses Lovecraftian elements, most prominently in the Iron Born plot lines in areas like “The Forsaken”, he never veers from his agnostic/atheist perspective. Aeron Damphair is hallucinating under the influence of Shade of the Evening in “The Forsaken”. As a result, his imaginings are culturally part of his Iron Born religious views. It is not that Euron is in league with deep ones, but that Aeron perceives him to be so. Not for nothing, it is also a call back to the 1960s of Martin’s youth where people would “expand their consciousness” by taking LSD. Just as there are no gods in “A Song of Ice and Fire”, there are no actual deep ones. In conclusion, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is not Lovecraftian, there are no deep ones, and the Others are not deep ones.
In conclusion, the Others are not evil. Contrary to Steven Attewell’s sarcastic title of his article on the subject, this statement does not render them the “good guys” either. In as much as none of the forces that engage in mass violence are the “good guys” whether the Dothraki, Starks, Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells, Blackfyres, or Targaryens, so too the Others are not good guys, just another faction in “A Song of Ice and Fire”. They should be free from the demonization that is not applied to any other faction. Only once that is done can we begin to appreciate the complex moral questions Martin is posing. Only then can we engage in a meaningful conversation about war, honor, morality, love, and hate that “A Song of Ice and Fire” provides us.