Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
In Part 1 we talked about the Others from a conceptual standpoint. Hopefully you now believe that it’s theoretically possible for the Others to not be one dimensional final bosses. Now it’s time to apply that understanding to their actual history.
The Other Side of History
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” – Harper Lee
The Others and what they’re doing are the first mystery of our story, and certainly one of the most puzzling. There is so much about them we don’t know, and so much where we have so little to go on that we can only speculate. We wonder whether or not they are in some regard human, what made them appear in the first place, what relation do they have to the Children of the Forest, whether the Others helped build the giant wall of ice, and so much more. We don’t know what motivates them, and yet most have made their judgement. That the Others are essentially either evil, or at least amoral horror movie monsters. As if they are Martin’s snowy take on Daleks.
Their history of conflict with mankind is so ancient that the people of Westeros have mostly forgotten they even exist. Thanks to the prologue we the readers know better, but can we really understand them without knowing why they do the things they do? without seeing the world from their perspective? Personally I don’t think we can, so let’s try to see the conflict between man and other, not as mankind, but as the others would. To truly understand these foreign beings, let’s get back to the basics. If we remove our bias and strip what we know about the history of humanity and the Others down to it’s most basic elements, there is one key fact which is hard to deny:
Humanity is the dominant side.
All accounts of the Long Night, the current geopolitical allocation of Westeros, and the Wall itself, make this very clear from a historical standpoint. We can’t be sure what exactly brought the Others during the Long Night, and because the Others seem to require humans for reproduction, we can’t be sure in what way the Others even existed prior to the Long Night. Perhaps the Long Night was the beginning of their existence. Else, the Others likely kept to the lands in the far north while the Children of the Forest inhabited most of the continent.
“But some twelve thousand years ago, the First Men appeared from the east, crossing the Broken Arm of Dorne before it was broken. They came with bronze swords and great leathern shields, riding horses. No horse had ever been seen on this side of the narrow sea. No doubt the children were as frightened by the horses as the First Men were by the faces in the trees. As the First Men carved out holdfasts and farms, they cut down the faces[weirwood trees] and gave them to the fire. Horror-struck, the children went to war.” – Maester Luwin (Bran VII, AGOT)
What we know about the invasion of the Others in the Long Night is that it occurred during a time in which the First Men had apparently just recently migrated to, and violently conquered Westeros from the Children of the Forest, decimating their natural habitat and upsetting the natural balance of the continent. Afterwards, mankind were actively warring with one another, establishing kingdoms, and expanding their territory starting from the south and moving north. This is the state of Westeros when the Long Night and the Others come. It’s actually hard to argue that the Other’s wintery invasion during the Long Night is really that different from the violent deforesting “migration” of the First Men in the Dawn Age. According to the histories, the difference is that the Children settled for peace and the Others did not negotiate. Except history doesn’t mention that the Pact didn’t save the Children, and for their trust they are now going extinct anyways.
Effectively, the Dawn Age for the First Men, was the Long Night for the Children of the Forest.
Theory: It’s possible that humanity’s expulsion of the Children from their lands resulted in an upset in the ecosystem. The Children who inhabited Westeros prior to the Dawn Age hunted with obsidian (AKA Kryptonite for White Walkers) and likely didn’t kill each other in massive numbers to provide the Others with wight armies . This would have hypothetically kept the Others at bay, because without an endless supply of corpses the Others wouldn’t stand any chance against the Children of the Forest in battle. Even the dead horse the Others ride did not exist in Westeros prior to the coming of the First Men. Furthermore it’s possible that The Wall itself is what is responsible for the unnatural seasons, as it may be blocking the season of winter itself until it periodically overflows and leaks out through the underground tunnels, coming out at Winterfell. That said this is merely speculation.
“…So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds.” – Old Nan
Next we have stories about a War for the Dawn, and humanity (the Last Hero) getting the help of the Children of the Forest (who were supposedly already driven deep into the dead lands) and pushing the Others out of the lands that men had literally just taken from the Children.
At that point a the Wall is supposedly built to separate the realms of men from the Others, with several castles built along the human side. King Brandon the Builder of House Stark is credited with this, and supposedly got help from the Children of the Forest, and perhaps the giants. Though to be fair, it’s actually not clear who really built the Wall. Yet regardless of who actually built the enormous wall of ice, it’s currently manned and dominated by humans. Humans regularly cross back and forth, but the Others do not, either due to inability or unwillingness.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
~ Mending Wall, Robert Frost
Beyond that, the Others who bring with them the cold (terraforming their environment to meet their needs, not unlike mankind did by chopping and burning the Weirwoods when they migrated to Westeros), are exiled to one side of the Wall. In fact, they currently need human infants to continue their species, indicating that humans either eliminated their original means of reproduction, or the Others did not exist in the same way prior to the First Men coming to Westeros (which would make them either aliens, or a divergent breed of mutated humans).
If we were to flip the story of humanity and the Others, then the narrative of invading Others might feel like the last of humanity resisting against an expanding evil empire of ice monsters. Yet because of our affinity to the characters we’ve been reading, and the fact we too are human, we see the conflict as humanity under attack by an “evil army.”
After all, how dare they want more land? When have humans ever violently taken anyone’s land?
I point this out not to make the case that the Others are good people, but to bring attention to the basic fact that our view of the Others is inherently centered around human interests, and starts from the basic assumption that the current distribution of land and resources is just, and any shift in that distribution is evil. Furthermore we are inclined to see the extinction of humanity as a catastrophic tragedy (not saying it isn’t), but the slow extinction of the Others as irrelevant, “tough luck,” or even a positive thing.
Containment and Isolationism in the Lands of Always Winter
The often ignored yet crucial element in the dynamic between humanity and the Others, is that the Others have kept to their side of the wall for several thousand years. I should note that we don’t know for sure that the time since the Long Night has really been 8000 years, as we have a lot of indications that ancient history on Planetos is more recent than is seem. Still, since the Long Night (or maybe the tale of the Night’s King), they have kept dormant through the rise of Valyria, through the downfall of the Night’s King, through the coming of the Andals, through the mysterious tragedy at Hardhome, through the Doom of Valyria, through Aegon’s conquest, through the abolition of the practice of primae noctis (Preston Jacobs has an interesting theory about this as a motivator for the Others, and I think it is relevant, but as part of a larger narrative), and through the Dance of the Dragons and death of the dragons 150 years ago. Summers and winters have come and gone, dragons have lived and died, kingdoms have risen and fallen, and through it all, until pretty recently, the Others kept to their side of the Wall, and even left the free folk alone.
The Wildling invasion of Raymund Redbeard in 226 AC. indicates that the resurgence of the Others has only occurred somewhere within the last 74 years, because that most recent Wildling invasion prior to Mance’s, was not predicated on a resurgence of the Others. This means that the Others aren’t coming because dragons simply exist again, nor are they coming because dragons came to the Seven Kingdoms (after all, what are the Seven Kingdoms as a political entity to the Others?). Nor are the Others coming because the dragons all died either, as the dragons died over a 150 years ago (it would not logically take the Others 150 years to build an army, as their methods increase their army with each kill. This increases numbers exponentially and is quick enough to build an army in weeks). Whatever is bringing them back, is likely something fairly recent, something occurring within the last 74 years.
Before I get to why the Others are coming, I want to note that this establishes one very important idea. Either:
- peace with the Others is totally possible and has been maintained for thousands of years.
the Others instinctively come in cycles regardless of human action and have been biding their time for thousands of years.
Because GRRM is an anti-war writer, and there is zero evidence for the latter, I am going to dismiss it during this essay series and explore the former. As in, peace with the Others is possible and has been practiced for years.
The Brandon Doctrine and the Tragedy of the Night’s King
“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.” – (Bran IV, ASOS)
If we can rewind history real quick, the story of the Night’s King heavily points to the notion that the Others are not inherently genocidal towards humanity, and that there was at one point the potential for diplomacy and even peace. Though this story is also ancient history and the details of it are all subject to scrutiny, the tale of a Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch proclaiming himself a king from the Nightfort, and taking what seems to be a female Other as a “corpse queen,” and making human sacrifices to the gods (which were more likely infants who were not killed but rather turned into Others), indicates that a marriage alliance was at one point made for the survival of the Others as a species. The Nightfort also happens to be the largest castle along the Wall, and happens to be the only one with steps up and down the Wall, carved directly into the ice, which makes us wonder if the steps were made for members of the Watch at all… Now how this turns out tells us that this wasn’t really a pact between the Others and humanity as a whole, but rather an alliance between the Night’s Watch as an institution and the Others (with the Children of the Forest possibly involved as intermediates).
In this context, it would appear that by ending the Night’s King’s 13 year reign and erasing his name from history, King Brandon the Breaker and Joramun the King Beyond the Wall, were trying to prevent the Others from taking the Wall as their stronghold and regrowing their population. What Old Nan gives us as a spooky children story, is an account of a marriage alliance and resulting territorial dispute. We see the Wall and the Watch as being an apolitical defense force, but if ever re-purposed as a politically independent kingdom with it’s own castle and wall, it becomes something far less benign and far more formidable and potentially threatening to King Stark and King Joramun. See the Watch seems to know about sacrifices to the Others to this day, but for the Watch to become an independent Kingdom with an alliance with the Others, well that is a far more threatening thing. This conflict over control of the Wall makes sense for the Others if they depend on humanity to continue their population, and it makes sense for King Joramun and King Stark in light of the Long Night still being relatively recent. What’s more, the Wall and possibly Brandon’s Gift becoming it’s own kingdom with several castles, a gigantic wall, and an alliance with the Others, would have been seen as a major political threat to the Stark Kings of Winter’s dominance in the region, and a threat to the Free Folk’s libertarian inclination to remain largely ungoverned. And ever since House Stark, who have largely dominated the North for thousands of years, have also effectively dominated the Wall.
“It seems the most important thing about Ronald Reagan was his anti-Communism and his reputation as a hawk who saw the soviet union as an evil empire.” – Mikhail Gorbachev
We can call this policy of Stark dominance over the Wall and containment against the Others, the Brandon Doctrine.
The narrative of a leader joining with a foreign woman for political reasons or falling in love and subsequently trying to make peace with another group, and being met with animosity from their own people who are not ready to trust or forgive the other side, being repeated over and over in our story. It shows up in Daeron II and his Dornish wife and favoritism towards Dorne contributing to the Blackfyre Rebellion. It shows up with Jon trying to make peace with the Wildlings after falling for Ygritte. It is sort of hinted at as Stannis recommends Jon become Lord of Winterfell and marry Val to secure the allegiance of the Wildlings (still a vague possibility). It is even present in the narrative of Stannis allowing influence from Melisandre as he uses her charisma, fanaticism, and sorcery, as a means of gaining political power (likely influenced by Mel, Stannis literally wants to make the Nightfort his base of operations and has Jon send builders to fix it up for him). Heck, it’s probably the story behind King Edderion Stark the Bridegroom, making peace with House Arryn through marriage after the Worthless War (I figure this because the next King of Winter is called Walton the Moon King). Sometimes that’s how things are. Everyone makes sense in their own way, but no one gets along because people want different things and are too proud and afraid to understand one another. Because power is threatening.
Yet this follows that if peace with the Others is possible, and the Others have been dormant for thousands of years, THEN the Others must now be coming for an actual reason.
Human and Other Interests
“I am reminded that at the L.A. Worldcon in 2006, George was on a panel and he was talking a bit dismissively about the cookie-cutter fantasies with a Dark Lord that’s the ultimate evil, wants to destroy the world, etc. and he said, you know, nothing is ever that black and white in reality, history’s greatest villains and monsters were, from their own perspective, heroic, etc. And he basically said he didn’t want to write about a Dark Lord sort of situation. And so someone followed up asking, Well, what about the Others? They seem pretty clearly evil. He paused and then smiled and said we’d have to keep reading to see where that goes. It implied to me that, yes, there’s more to the Others than what we’ve seen so far.” – Elio Garcia on GRRM
In asking ourselves why the others are active now, we first need to ask ourselves; what would motivate the Others?
The alien appearance and behavior of the Others, has the effect of making characters and readers alike presume that they cannot be reasoned with and do not have understandable motivations besides killing humans like horror movie monsters. Most readers have completely bought into Melisandre’s dualistic ideology of the Others being thralls of cold and darkness who are antithetical to all life. We have assumed this because we have seen them being violent towards humans, and so we have closed ourselves off to the idea that they might have reasons which change or round out our view of them. Despite “what is bringing the Others?” being one of the central mysteries of the story, most readers have closed the book on the notion that they may have any goal or purpose in life aside from genocide. Judge first, understand later. Yet if we are able to look at the Others as historically, then we are able to understand their motivations in the same way we understand the motivations of other characters and factions.
A major strength of ASOIAF is that different characters and factions tend to have understandable motivations, rather than acting illogically and randomly to move events along. In general, people and factions have an overwhelming tendency to seek power. Seeking power tends to have an exclusively negative connotation, often being associated with oppressors, corrupt leaders, and megalomaniacs. But seeking power isn’t inherently about world domination, but rather can be about seeking the power to live freely according to one’s ideals, or to structure society in a way fitting one’s ideals. If we apply this way of thinking to the various factions in our story, their actions start to make a lot of sense.
- High Lords of the individual Kingdoms had the most power prior to the unification of the Seven Kingdoms, and since have often had to bend to the will of the Targaryen Kings. Aside from autonomy, the next best thing for the individual High Lords is a system more like a feudal confederacy.
- As I wrote about in the Nerd Rebellion, the Maesters on the other hand prefer something more like a meritocracy, as is reflected in their institution’s promotion based on individual merit. Since they cannot really make Westeros a meritocracy realistically, they fight against a system in which magic and dragons rule and are passed down through closed bloodlines..
- The Septons naturally believe in a theocracy, as people’s faith in the Seven is what gives them power to define Westerosi morals and customs. Since they cannot achieve this, the next best thing for the Faith is to have a weak dragonless king who needs to be legitimized in the eyes of a religious populace by the Faith, or simply a religious King who will follow the will of the Septons.
- The Targaryens tend to favor power in the form of absolute monarchy. Yet Westeros is large and difficult to govern, so even the King must share power, particularly in the absence of dragons. This explains why the Targs were so obsessed with bringing back dragons for so many generation.
- Across the Sea in Slavers bay, we see a system more akin to an oligarchy, where a small number of wealthy families maintain all power. For them, Daenerys represented a massive decrease in power.
- North of the Wall, the Free Folk prefer to be free of government, choosing their Kings themselves mainly for the purpose of organized invasions or survival. The wildlings basically have anarchy, or at the very least a very libertarian society.
- The Children of the Forest are none human, yet still can be said to have had a genuinely egalitarian hunter-gatherer society in harmony with one another and nature.
This brings us back to the Others. Given how little we know about them, we can’t really say how they prefer to run their society in the lands of Always Winter, and GRRM has stated that it’s unclear whether they even have a culture. And though they may have sought to conquer Westeros during the Long Night, the thousands of years since then indicate they are able to maintain peace. Yet if something has provoked them, then this leaves us with the lowest common denominator. What shared interest could motivate the Seven Kingdoms, the Targaryens, the Wildlings, the Septons, the Maesters, Free Folk, the Children, and the Others?
“The Others are not dead. They are strange, beautiful… think, oh… the Sidhe made of ice, something like that… a different sort of life… inhuman, elegant, dangerous.”
Remember that poem for which GRRM titled his first ever novel. The Others are living things. What if what they fear is simply extinction? What if like any other living thing, the Others just don’t want to die?
Do not go gentle into that good
Rage, rage against the dying of the
Quiet Cold Men and Nature’s Noisy Kids
There is one more element of history which has major bearing on the state of affairs north of the Wall, but is relatively ignored by the histories.
Since the Dawn Age, the Children of the Forest, who once roamed all over Westeros, have been pushed further and further out of the realms of men with each subsequent invasion and migration. From Bran Stark’s POV, we get a pretty good idea that the Children are mostly north of the Wall at this point. Essentially, over the past thousands of years, the children of the forest have become refugees.
Though we have no specific information on what disruption this migration of singers might have caused to the White Walkers, we do have to bear in mind that there is an inherent conflict of habitat, where the Others prefer the cold, and the Children of the Forest, likely prefer to have forests and growth and seasons. The Children of the Forest, also likely know exactly how to deal with the Others, as they are known to hunt with obsidian, which is shown to essentially be White Walker kryptonite. Though the Others have been able to coexist to an extent with the Children for some time now, this relationship now being a hostile one, is further indicated by the siege on the cave of the Last Greenseer which Bran encounters.
Ultimately it’s this refugee crisis which I believe has led to the Other’s need after all this time, to finally take action.
“did you know that six hundred years ago, the commanders at Snowgate and the Nightfort went to war against each other? And when the Lord Commander tried to stop them, they joined forces to murder him? The Stark in Winterfell had to take a hand . . . and both their heads. Which he did easily…” – (Jon VII, ASOS)
There is one more thing to take note of here. About 3oo years before Aegon’s Landing, and 100 years before the Doom of Valyria, two puzzling things happen up North. There is a mysterious fiery disaster at Hardhome killing hundreds of people and stomping out what would have been the first ever Wildling town. Around the same time, the Night’s Watch Commanders at the Nightfort, and Snowgate, go to war, and are subsequently beheaded by the King in the North. So what happened? Well I think I have an answer.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head
~ Mending Wall, by Robert Frost
Snowgate, is seemingly a castle named for giving over bastard infants or “Snows” to the Others. This may have also happened at the Watch’s largest castle, the Nightfort, which has a weirwood door known as the Black Gate, who’s mouth opens making it look like what goes through is being sacrificed to an old god. The Nightfort, not unlike Harrenhal(which also contains weirwood), is also known for being cursed, with countless bizarre horror stories coming from it. The story of the Rat Cook, who was transformed and punished by the Old Gods for violating Guest Right, implies that it’s in fact the Old Gods and the magic of Children of the Forest which has power and influence over the Nightfort. And the fact that the Nightfort goes to war with Snowgate, indicates a proxy war in which the Children of the Forest were trying to inhibit the Others from continuing their population. It’s likely the commander at the Nightfort ceased giving up infants to the Others, and went to war with the Snowgate Commander over this. And the tragedy at Hardhome, indicates an attempt by the Singers at trying to curb the wildling population and rise of civilization North of the Wall through death by fire. The fact that this is afiery tragedy, indicates that the bodies were unable to be turned to wights. Yet this proxy war is settled by the King of Winterfell, and it’s soon after this that the Targaryens settle Dragonstone, and Daenys dreams the Doom.
Those who have been reading Weirwood Leviathan, know that one of my central ideas is that Bloodraven and the Children of the Forest, are instigating war between mankind and the Others as a pretense for placing Jon and Daenerys on the throne as a dragon wielding absolute monarchy to stabilize Westeros. This brings us to a crucial point. This is where ASOIAF’s two major themes of society and identity collide.
In order to define the SELF that is the Seven Kingdoms, Brynden Rivers requires the OTHERS to be the quintessential enemy against which Westeros defines ITSELF.
The tragedy of the Others is that it’s not them that need to go to war with humanity, but Westeros which needs to understand itself through war with the Other.
Do not go gentle into that good light
Rage, rage against the dying of the night
To create this war, Bloodraven had first to make the Others feel that their very existence was bring threatened. So in Part 3 we’re going to really get into what has REALLY been going on North of the Wall since the main story began, and finally reveal How Bloodraven is bringing the Others.