George R. R. Martin has certainly woven a great many historical traditions into his book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire”. There are Norse, Celtic, Greek, Persian, Medieval European, and Native American and Americas tales woven in as well as more modern inspirations like H. P. Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Michael Moorcock, and no little Stan Lee et al from the Marvel and DC comic book universes. However, while there is no denying the impact of historical fiction and actual history written by historians on the work, there is also a great deal of a baby boomer who opposed the Vietnam War, subscribes to the “hippie” counterculture’s perspective, and someone who contemplates the conflict within the human heart (William Faulkner) a great deal as well. His interviews, his introductions to his work in Dreamsongs, co-edited volumes, and his “Wild Cards” series of mosaic novels, and his work itself are tremendously autobiographical even in his 1000 Worlds science fiction stories. It would be tremendously odd if this author created an inveterate evil, humanoid opponent for our “heroes” to fight, or “earn their tropes” as one commentator has put it.
Readers of this blog are well aware that I do not subscribe to any eldritch apocalypse type ideas about “A Song of Ice and Fire” regardless of the Lovecraft references and what fantasy stories are supposedly supposed to do. But, I have been relatively short on what I think is actually going on in the story. After all, I do not subscribe to the Preston Jacobs’ theory that it is all science fiction, a post-apocalyptic world of genetically altered humans manipulated by a Hrangan-like Children of the Forest. While I do believe Jacobs among others have correctly discovered the hidden plots of our chess master author, there is a great deal more once we start taking the legends seriously.
Martin has frequently stated and deployed the idea that official histories are unreliable, that point of view is often untrustworthy, and that there may be more truth in song than in expert written text. Song is a stand-in for both art is beauty and beauty truth as well as song coming from the heart devoid of any deception by our minds. If the eyes are the window to the soul, the bards are the tellers of what is true. Besides “A Song of Ice and Fire”, we see a similar message in Windhaven with Lisa Tuttle, The Armageddon Rag, The Way of Cross and Dragon, Dying of the Light, and A Song for Lya among others. Therefore, while understanding that tale tellers themselves have a perspective that needs to be sifted from the truth, Old Nan’s tale of the Night’s King and Queen should play a larger role in our understanding than it currently does.
It would certainly be odd if one of the tales turned out not to matter when all of the other ones do. The Long Night, The Rat Cook, Bael the Bard and the Blue Rose of Winterfell, and the other founding legends concerning Bran the Builder etc. have all proven themselves to have some kernel of truth to them, if embellished, inaccurate, and fanciful or some combination thereof. There is one piece of contrary evidence: a statement Martin made in reference to the Night’s King of his books and the Night King of the show, “Game of Thrones”, where Martin refers to his Night’s King as legendary. However, even this declaration is not dispositive.
First, we do not know the extent of what Martin has told David Benioff and D. B. Weis – the show’s primary writers and producers – about the story. Thus far, Benioff and Weis have confirmed that it is only the ending, R + L = J, and three other revelations, two of whom are now accounted for (the burning of Shireen and Hodor is short for “hold the door”). (By the way, for what it is worth, my money would be on Tyrion Targaryen for the third.) Second, the White Walkers, their wights, and the Children of the Forest were also legendary before they were confirmed. Third, there is still plenty of story left for additional legends to emerge out of tales and into reality.
Old Nan, through Bran’s recollection as he journeys north, relayed several items worth noting. First, the Night’s King was the 13th Lord Commander and “knew no fear”. Second, he pursued, captured, and married a maiden whose description is eerily similar to a White Walker: pale, moonglow in her hair, and so on. Third, the Night’s King gave his soul when he gave his “seed”, thus, becoming linked to and part of her, not unlike Sauron giving his will – his soul – to the one ring in The Lord of the Rings (one of Martin’s favorite stories of all time). Fourth, they ruled from the Nightfort for thirteen years and held the Night’s Watch in their thrall and are believed to have made sacrifices to the Others. Fifth, they were brought down by Bran the Breaker of Winterfell and Joramun, first King-Beyond-the-Wall. Sixth, the Night’s King was Bran the Breaker’s brother. Old Nan adds the idea that his name was Bran, but this can be dismissed because two brothers are not going to get the same name unless the Night’s King was a Snow, a bastard of the North. It is possible but certainly not confirmed. It would also make sense for the Night’s King to enter the Night’s Watch if he was a Snow, but it will have to remain a mystery for now. Last, but not least, Bran the Breaker destroys all the records concerning the Night’s King and he and his queen are erased from history.
Many in the commentariat believe that the Night’s King and Queen were killed, but Bran’s recollection of the story does not convey that detail. It merely reads “brought down”. One can be deposed without being killed. It would also make much more sense if Bran the Breaker does not kill the Night’s King given the prohibition against kinslaying. However, the Night’s King and Queen present a danger to the realm of men given their alliance with the White Walkers and their ability to enthrall others – likely a form of telepathic control the way Bran controls Walder/Hodor. With the prohibition against kinslaying, there would need to be some sort of arrangement to keep the Night’s King and Queen from conspiring against humanity that would also take into account what Maester Aemon observed – ice preserves; in other words, the Night’s King and Queen are likely to be long-lived.
The original keep for Winterfell is described as a drum tower with gargoyles on top of deceptive height built by Bran the Builder himself with help from giants and the Children of the Forest. It would have to be considering the considerable engineering involved in creating the crypts beneath it with several layers and at great length, deep into the rock above a hot springs. Like the Tower of London after the conquest, this drum like keep would also be a suitable prison for a child of the ice dragon, such as the Night’s Queen.
With his love and queen imprisoned in Winterfell, the Night’s King would have to accede to any arrangements made for him for fear of what the Stark in Winterfell would do with her. She would be a perpetual hostage to ensure his good behavior. As for his fate, it would certainly not be untoward to bury him deep within the earth like another undead being who has forfeited his soul – a vampire. This would not be much of a stretch for Martin who wrote his own Gothic vampire story, Fevre Dream, with a description of the vampire race sympathetic to their plight while at the same time explaining their predatory nature, a nature that can be overcome by the way. Martin’s stories always present a way for the races of beings to live peacefully side by side whether it be vampires and humans, werewolves and humans, Wild Cards and humans, men and women, and so on.
The condition of the crypts aligns with this arrangement very well. Despite being over a hot springs, the crypts are always a deathly cold. This situation does not contradict the other analysis that holds the Starks are part-White Walker. There is too much evidence in support of that theory to posit otherwise (the ironwood doors, the use of crypts instead of burial mounds, the motto “Winter Is Coming” with the “Kings of Winter” moniker, and, last but not least, the iron swords on their coffins to “keep their spirits within”.) When Bran and company remove those swords, Bran spots an ice dragon through Summer emerging out of Winterfell with the deepest part of the storm that strands Stannis seemingly centered on Winterfell. This is all in keeping with Bran the Builder and his descendants having helped build the Wall and Winterfell and Storm’s End with wind (the ice dragon) powers.
The reconciliation of the Starks as White Walker descendants with the Night’s Queen being a prisoner theory lies with the position of the swords on those sarcophagi and the overall impression the Kings of Winter give visitors – Stay away, on guard, and denial of hospitality. The swords are across their laps with their direwolves at their feet. They are manning the prison as are the gargoyles on the roof. Walder likely became imprinted with “Hold the door/Hodor” concerning the door to her cell. Although this serves as a decent explanation for all of the above, it does not advance the story unless we combine it with the proceedings north of the Wall.
“Half a Hundred Graves”
Mance Rayder spent considerable time and effort as King-Beyond-the-Wall opening “half a hundred graves” in the Frost Fangs according to Ygritte. This does not make much sense in light of the inhospitable terrain, the urgency of his plans in light of increasing White Walker activity, and his vastly superior forces combined with his knowledge of the overall weakness of the Night’s Watch. He will need all that strength to gain control of Castle Black and the large tunnel through the Wall that it commands, a tunnel large enough to accommodate his entire people and giants and mammoths as they flee south. There is only one possible reason Mance would take such a terrible risk. As Ygritte explains, he was seeking the Horn of Winter/Joramun, which can wake giants in the earth. It was likely this horn that helped Joramun take the Nightfort from the north while Bran the Breaker attacked from the south.
Unfortunately for clarity’s sake, most of the commentariat have misinterpreted the horn’s purpose and taken Mance’s threat to bring down the Wall with it as a true one. First, we can all agree that Tormund is right that the horn Melisandre burned was simply a giant’s horn Mance’s forces found in a grave, not the true horn. Second, a horn that can bring down the Wall makes no sense. Why would you put all that effort into creating a gigantic spell-laden ice wall and then have a horn whose toots can bring it down Joshua and Jericho-style? Why would you want to? Even the Free Folk/Wildlings do not want such a tool. They prefer to climb it, conduct raids, and then go back. Within the time of the 13th Lord Commander, they would still remember the White Walkers are real, are a potential threat, and the Wall is the only thing stopping them. (Lightbringer has been extinguished into Dawn after all.)
Also, “waking the giants in the earth” does not necessarily entail earthquake, volcanoes, or actual giants. Given that this is much more likely a metaphor for the Children in their caves, connected to their heartwood trees, and they helped build the Wall, how is that conversation supposed to have gone? “Yo, Children, thanks for your help with the Wall. Now, could you give us a horn or something so that we can wake you and bring it down if we want?” The Children would have refused. However, if it wakes the Children and they, once awakened, have earth powers to affect the Wall, then the Horn of Joramun is more like the horns employed by the Night’s Watch: one blast for rangers returning, two blasts for Wildlings, and three for the White Walkers. Humanity can call on the Children for aid, but it does not bring on their destruction by destroying the Wall.
It then makes a great deal more sense that Mance was looking for the Horn of Joramun. He was seeking to awaken the Children to ask for their help in fighting the rise of the White Walkers. He knew they were coming. The long summer was ending and likely to bring a long winter – perfect conditions for the White Walkers. There was also prophecy. Azor Ahai and the Prince Who Was Promised seem to be major motivating factors for a whole host of characters in “A Song of Ice and Fire” although, to be fair, almost all of them appear to be Targaryens (Melisandre, daughter of Shiera Seastar and Brynden Rivers/Bloodraven, Rhaegar, Maester Aemon, and so on). A fabled threat could only be defeated by a fabled weapon or series of weapons: dragons, a sword of flame, dragon glass, dragon steel, and a horn out of legend. It is no wonder that many are predicting a second Battle for the Dawn, a trio of dragon riders, a self-sacrificing mission into the heart of darkness. They are fighting Melisandre’s Great Other for the Lord of Light. They are fighting the Night’s Queen. But, they are all of them deceived, including Mance.
Prophecy Is Like a….
It is perfectly understandable that, as a man concerned with prophecy, knowledgeable in song and legend, Mance would seek to save the Free Folk by seeking the Horn of Winter. It is certainly not his fault that the exact circumstances of the Night’s King would be obscured from his vision. After all, Bran the Breaker destroyed all the records. It is unfortunate, ironic even, that Mance unearthed the Night’s King. With the great Snow mustering their forces, the White Walkers now present the danger that Mance had been so desperately trying to thwart. If Mance is actually Rhaegar, it is even more tragic that he has followed prophecy to the doom of those he sought to protect.
For, it is the Children of the Forest who have arranged the chess pieces just so, planting prophecies here and there so that armies can be mustered, the Valyrians destroyed but for the Targaryens alerted by prophecy, now so desperately driven by them they will seal their own doom. The Faceless Men owe their gift of death as slaves in Valyria and now must pay their debt for their mottoes are “All men must die” and “All men must serve”. Their many-faced god is the Children in their heartwood trees. Mance has unleashed the Night’s King and he will seek out his bride upon the fall of the Wall, not from the Horn of Joramun, but from the dragons everyone has sought to use as their salvation, but will bring about their destruction. The ice wall will be destroyed by fire, dragon fire. An ultimate battle of annihilation will result. That is, unless, someone can discern the true nature of things and find a path to peace.
Make love, not war. The only path to peace is peace. The only way to win is not to play. Light and dark go together to make the world. The cold is the absence of heat. The winter is the seasonal response to summer. The temperate areas of a planet need both. Too much summer, like too much heat, burns, destroys, and renders fertile lands a desert. Too much winter kills all life and burns in its way, and renders arctic. There needs to be balance. See how a Daoist symbol depicts the interaction of yin and yang. They define one another and together form life. The solution to hate is not more hate, but love. The solution to war is not more war, but peace. Therein lies true wisdom. That is the ultimate message of our song, “A Song of Ice and Fire”.