“…what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?”
– Stannis Baratheon and Davos Seaworth(Davos V, ASOS)/(S3Ep10, Mhysa)
Radio Dark Santa and the Sad Elves
Half a century prior to the start of the story, Brynden Rivers goes far North of the Wall and forms an alliance with the Children of the Forest, becoming the Last
Hero Greenseer. We see when Bran gets there, that the Others are laying siege to the Last Greenseer’s cave, and based on the appearance of the wights, seem to have been doing so for a very long time. The siege is pretty logical for the Others, given that Bloodraven has established an outpost/stronghold on their lands and is transmitting visions to organize a war effort against them. I could point to examples till I’m blue in the face, but the simplest and clearest is when he enters Bran’s coma dream, shows him the Heart of Winter, and warns him that he must live because “Winter is coming.” Bloodraven’s presence is seemingly highly agitating to the Others, and they are trying to ensure no one gets into his cave, or at the very least, Bran specifically.
The important thing to take note about the conflict between the Children of the Forest and the Others, is that it’s likely almost entirely the fault of human conquest and greed. The Children of the Forest had dominion over a vast majority of the continent of Westeros before the weirwood burning invasions of the First Men, and later the Andals. At this point the Singers have been pushed by mankind to the far corners of the world, inevitably putting them in conflict with the Other group of people who reside there. The fact that there is a conflict here is inevitable, as these are two different forms of life with differing preferred habitats and ways of life. It’s easy for us to side with the cute Children and blame the scary Others for this, describing them as antithetical to life horror monsters akin to the Daleks. But this misses the point that if humans were able to coexist with the Children better, or leave them a sufficient home, then these two peoples of spring and of winter would never have been in conflict in the first place.
This follows an overwhelming human history of ignoring our own responsibility in conflicts created by our own expansionist tendencies. We have little problem acknowledging past wrongs by human societies, yet pass even harsher judgements on those dealing with an unjust status quo. So we place blame on the ancient individuals who pushed the Children out while the characters in the current story reside on their land. Then we place blame on groups like the Children of the Forest or the Others for not quietly dealing with the fact that their ecosystem is being disrupted by mankind’s expansion. There is no attention being paid to the fact that the Others, and the Children of the Forest, are living with the consequences of human empire building.
It’s not clear exactly how long there have been tensions between the Children of the Forest and the Others north of the Wall. It could be thousands of years, 600 years, 50 years, or even more recent than that. We just know relations are not good now, which indicates that to some extent, the Others are aware of Brynden Rivers and his machinations.
This is very fitting with the theory I lay out in Weirwood Leviathan, as I believe Bloodraven and the Children of the Forest are trying to instigate war against the Others as a pretense to establish a union between Jon and Daenerys and a new dragon wielding monarchy. If Bloodraven got the blood of the dragon into the Stark family, is bringing the mother of dragons to the North, is calling out to Bran Stark to control those dragons telepathically, and tricked Melisandre into proclaiming Stannis as Azor Ahai, bringing his fire worshiping army North… then Bloodraven is a serious problem for them. Though, it’s unclear how much they know of all this, it’s clear that the Killer Jack Frosts of the North know something’s not quite right for them about what’s going on under the tree with the Dark Santa and his Sad Elves.
A Dragon in Winterfell
For 13 days in 1962 it seemed the world could actually end. In what is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War nearly escalated to a full on nuclear conflict. To summarize, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred as tensions between the United States and the Soviets, already aggravated by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion by the US, and the placement of ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy, were brought near the breaking point when the Soviets agreed to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. Both sides were at a stalemate, and war between the two sides could have meant global devastation, and mutually assured destruction. Fortunately for all, after a 2 week blockade the tensions were diffused, as talks between Leader Khrushchev and President Kennedy led to an agreement for the Soviets to remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba and the United States secretly agreeing to remove the ballistic missiles in Turkey and and Italy.
In simple terms, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened because the Soviets and the United States placed missiles within striking range of one another.
This is where the Prince That Was Promised comes in.
After Robert’s Rebellion Ned Stark brings Jon Snow, a Stark with the blood of the dragon to live at Winterfell. For those who went to war against the warm blooded, this event represents the Starks of Winterfell possibly acquiring the necessary bloodline to tame dragons. Dragons, who are fire made flesh, represent the bane of the Other’s existence, given that their weaknesses are dragonglass and dragonsteel, and dragonfire at the very least burns wights. The Starks are historically known for keeping the Others at bay, being the Kings south of the Wall for thousands of years, having supposedly aided in building the Wall or at least some of the castles along the Wall, having provided the Wall with men and lands and supplies, having executed deserters to the Wall, having had more Stark lord commanders than any other house, having risen to power right after the Long Night, and having brought down the Night’s King. It’s likely that the Kings of Winter are the only Kings south of the Wall that the Others recognize or care about, and now those Kings are seemingly acquiring the power to destroy them.
There is also of course the popular theory that Winterfell is named for being where the armies of winter, fell. In The Great Kingdom of the Night, I discuss how war against the White Walkers likely gave House Stark the momentum to become Kings in the North. The natural hot springs indicate that Winterfell is seemingly built on a geological hot spot, possibly having given the centrally located castle an edge in fighting the war on winter. This could also indicate the presence of dragonglass deep in the collapsed lower levels of the crypts. In fact Winterfell, Valyria, and Dragonstone are only three places in the story noted to have gargoyle statues, Valyria is also built on a geological hot spot, and Dragonstone is supposedly filled with dragonglass. So perhaps Winterfell has to too… or perhaps in there is some in the black pool?
“The smoke and ash clouded his eyes, and in the sky he saw a great winged snake whose roar was a river of flame. He bared his teeth, but then the snake was gone.” – Bran as Summer (Bran VII, ACOK)
There is also questionable evidence that there may have been a literal dragon under Winterfell, which Summer witnesses after the burning of Winterfell. I am not sold on this theory, but it is worth considering. Needless to say this is something that would likely make the Others very very nervous.
“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 (Bran IV, AGOT)
But this calls into question, how much can the Others actually see south of the Wall? North of the Wall they are supposedly always nearby, likely able to utilize snow and ice and wind as their eyes and ears. They seem to be able to sense warmth or warm blood. But the question remains what they can actually see beyond a giant Wall which they don’t ever cross?
Though this is speculative, it’s possible that though they do not cross the wall, winter allows them to see beyond it. A second possibility exists that the Others use the Wall as a way to look upon the realms of men bellow. A third possibility is that black pool of Winterfell allows the Others to see and hear things from the Winterfell Godswood, as this cold black pool seemingly connects to a larger underground body of water which extents North of the Wall. Even still, though it’s hard to know how much the Others know South of the Wall (we don’t have reason to assume they know much more than humans know about the Lands of Always Winter really), it’s clear that there are a lot of threatening moves happening on humanity’s part.
“The Horned Lord once said that sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.” – Dalla to Jon Snow
Yet there is one little detail which points to the Others knowing about a certain prophecy. The prophecy of the Prince That Was Promised, was initially made central to the lives of Targaryen monarchy when it was brought to court by a Wood’s Witch, the Ghost of High Heart. Now the thing about Wood’s Witches is that they sometimes have the gift of prophecy, and receive their prophecies through the Weirwoods, so they are likely susceptible to receiving visions from Bloodraven. Furthermore we have Woods Witches North of the Wall too. Mother Mole and Wood’s Witches like her North of the Wall, receive visions and prophecies from the Last Greenseer, and being North of the Wall, are surely within earshot of the Others. The prophecy of TPTWP and Azor Ahai are used interchangeably by Melisandre, and the prophecy of a chosen dragon riding hero wielding a flaming Other slaying sword and delivering mankind from darkness and the “the Great Other,“ is likely to be perceived even more ominously by the folks from the Land of Always Winter.
“Prophecies are, you know, a double edge sword. You have to handle them very carefully; I mean, they can add depth and interest to a book, but you don’t want to be too literal or too easy .” – GRRM
“[A] prophecy is like a treacherous woman. She takes your member in her mouth, and you moan with the pleasure of it and think, how sweet, how fine, how good this is . . . and then her teeth snap shut and your moans turn to screams. That is the nature of prophecy, said Gorghan. Prophecy will bite your prick off every time.” – Marwyn to Samwell Tarley
The Wildling Refugee Crisis
The first group of humans to recognize that the Others have become active again are the Wildlings, and thus
Moses Mance Rayder, has organized an exodus to lead his people south of the Wall. The common assumption here is that the Others woke up “cuz magic” and are killing free folk to build up their armies. And to an extent they probably are preparing their armies. But if we look closer, this conflict seems to be a bit more complicated than all that.
“They never came in force, if that’s your meaning, but they were with us all the same, nibbling at our edges. We lost more outriders than I care to think about, and it was worth your life to fall behind or wander off. Every nightfall we’d ring our camps with fire. They don’t like fire much, and no mistake. When the snows came, though … snow and sleet and freezing rain, it’s bloody hard to find dry wood or get your kindling lit, and the cold … some nights our fires just seemed to shrivel up and die. Nights like that, you always find some dead come the morning. ” – Tormund (Jon XI, ADWD)
… some dead? if the Others were able to sneak into a camp at night to kill some people, why wouldn’t they just use kill everyone?
We have many indications that the Others are not going at the wildlings in full force to build their armies, but rather are picking them off and pushing the wildlings south, towards the Wall. Which calls into question that simpler explanation, as the others really shouldn’t have any trouble exterminating the Wildlings if they wanted to, given the efficacy of their methods. So allowing 100,000 wildlings to invade south seems like it would be a risky move for the Others if they were planning to invade, considering that all those wildlings could make for perfectly good corpse soldiers. So in light of that, why send them away?
Well the Others likely know that the Watch has shifted focus in the past several thousand years from fending off white walkers to fighting off wildling invasions to preserve the sovereign borders of Westeros. So the Others would know that forcing the wildlings south has one inevitable conclusion. It creates chaos to the south.
There have been several wildling invasions in the history of the North, and given the under manned state of the Wall, war between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings has the likely result of crippling or even decimating the Watch. But if the Others were only trying to weaken the Watch so they could invade Westeros they might as well use the Wildlings as wight soldiers right off the bat, yet they don’t. The Wildlings have begun to organize, and are preparing an exodus as a result of the Others picking them off. Yet neither fans nor characters, ever stop to think that the Others might actually know what they are doing, or might actually be planning this.
The previous wildling invasion by Raymund Redbeard, though a smaller invasion, didn’t lead to a war with the watch, as the Watch was low in numbers (kind of like it is now). It led to an invasion of the North, a Battle at Long Lake and the death of Lord Willam Stark. Before that, the Wildling invasion of King Beyond the Wall Bael the Bard led to a battle with House Stark, except the heir to Winterfell was Bael’s own son, so Bael refused to be a kinslayer and was instead killed by him. We have little information on what happened with the Horned Lord’s invasion besides magic being involved, but before him the tunnel invasion of Kings Beyond the Wall Gendel and Gorne led to a dead Lord of Winterfell as well. It would seem wildling invasions have a habit of resulting in attacks on the North, and dead Starks.
And maybe, just maybe, dead Starks are exactly what the Others were counting on.
Way More Royce and Operation Kill the Boy
This brings us back to the prologue. But this time we’re going to understand it in context. As reddit user Joemagician has pointed out, the death of Waymar Royce in the prologue is very peculiar in that the Others seem to have set a trap specifically for the three rangers. Waymar Royce visits Craster’s Keep on his way to the Haunted Forest just prior to his demise, and we know Craster has contact with the Others even if in the most basic terms. Craster also takes note of Waymar. The Rangers then find a bunch of wildling raiders having frozen to death, yet the weather is unseasonably warm. When Will brings Waymar to see, the bodies have all moved, (the weather being warm indicates that they were frozen to death earlier, and left there to be found by the Rangers). And that’s when Waymar is surrounded by 6 White Walkers. These are highly irregular numbers for just one watchmen, since they seem to have such small numbers, and later send only one man to kill several watchmen. Now we can chalk this up to dramatic effect, or this being before Martin had cemented his idea of how the Others do battle, but it seems there may be something far more significant going on.
“He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife.” – Description of Waymar Royce in the Prologue of AGOT
Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast. – Description of Jon in Bran I, AGOT
Waymar’s description characteristically matches the description Martin gives for Jon Snow in the very next chapter. The quintessential look of a Stark. In fact there is a chance Waymar has Stark blood somewhere in his line. Which supports the idea that not only was Waymar targeted, but that the Others took precaution, seemingly expecting him to put up a fight. They weren’t simply being cruel, they were looking for a Stark who would be a threat, and wanted to make sure they had the right Stark. In fact the Others are so focused on Waymar that they don’t even bother to chase down Gared. They just let him escape.
Yet it’s been thousands of years since the Starks and the Others fought. Why now?
Because of Ned Starks mercy. Because Lord Eddard Stark seemingly brought the blood of the dragon into his house, and because Brynden Rivers is orchestrating war with Quaithe guiding Daenerys and her dragons west and north to unite with Jon. In fact, if the Others heard any of the prophecies about the Prince That Was Promised or Azor Ahai from the Woods Witches in the North, they’d have even more cause for concern. After all, these are prophecies about their demise.
The notion that the Others fear the Starks are readying to go to war, and are trying to kill Jon Snow and eliminate their ability to fly over and rain down dragon fire on them, really changes the way we can interpret events.
- If the Others knew that the Stark with the blood of the dragon has been moved to the Wall, this would further agitate the situation and cause them to really start pushing the wildlings to attack the Wall.
- This would explain the disappearance of Benjen Stark, as Starks are the ones being targeted.
- The fact that a wight tries to assassinate Lord Commander Mormont indicates that they are trying to weaken the organization of the Watch. This would result in the wildling assault on the Wall yielding a higher death toll for the Watch, and hopefully killing Jon Snow.
“Who’s this one now?” Craster said before Jon could go. “He has the look of a Stark.” – (Jon III, ACOK)
- The fact that the unprecedented 300 men of the Great Ranging are attacked at the Fist of the First Men, also makes sense, as before the attack they pass through Craster’s keep, and Jon Snow is noted to be among them. The attack at the Fist of the First Men actually just barely misses Jon, because he spares Ygritte and is consequently captured by Rattleshirt’s group. Otherwise Jon may have died right in that attack (though he did have Longclaw).
Later, the mutiny of the Night’s Watch at Craster’s keep ends up sabotaging the only source we know of the Others obtaining children, and Samwell ‘The Slayer’ Tarley takes an infant that was promised to the Others, back to the Wall.
We have a tendency to view our enemies, or ‘the other,’ as being savage and bloodthirsty, but further inspection shows us that the Others are actually quite intelligent and tactical. They aren’t on a mad killing spree. They are trying to be efficient.
“But isn’t Hardhome proof that the Others were eventually going to massacre and make all the Wildlings into wights anyways?”
This is show only, so feel free to acknowledge or ignore it however much you think it matters. But the biggest evidence people cite for the Others being evil genocidal snowmen, is featured in the season 5 episode Hardhome. After all, they seem to indiscriminately kill wildlings seeking asylum, tragically right at the cusp of a peace between the free folk and the Westerosi. And as the audience we assume this was always their plan, and that Jon Snow got there just barely too late to save everyone. But the answer as to why the Others committed this war crime, is right in front of us, right in the episode. We only need to see things from the Other side.
The day of the attack on Hardhome, Lord Commander Jon Snow, a man with the blood of the Kings of Winter and the blood of the dragon, with the quintessential look of a Stark and a dragon steel sword, sails up like George Washington crossing the Delaware, bringing White Walker Kryptonite into a camp containing thousands of wildlings. Jon then proceeds to recruit a very large number of them to join him and make war with the white walkers. I believe the term he uses is “give the fuckers a fight”.
THEN came the White Walkers.
Anyone still wonder why the attack on Hardhome happened when it did? It didn’t just so happen to take the Others that long to get there. They could have gotten there whenever they wanted to. After all, they are apparently always nearby. No, the Others got there exactly when they needed to in order to prevent all of those people from being used against them, to prevent the Starks and Wildlings from uniting against them again. The Others literally send one of their own into the hut to stop Jon from getting the dragonglass. In that last scene, the leader of the Others is taunting Jon with thousands of people that Jon had come to recruit for war. He’s essentially saying “You wanted them, I got them. What’s good Crow?”
As horrific as the events at Hardhome are, they are actually extremely threatening to the Others. A Lord Commander of Night’s Watch, descended from the Kings of Winter, with the Blood of the Dragon, brings weapons of their destruction, and tries to form an alliance with the wildlings to kill them. We don’t see it that way because the Others come out on top, but they were potentially in a lot of trouble there.
This of course is not to say that killing innocent people is okay, just that we are generally hypocritical about this. Until Lord Commander Jon, the Night’s Watch had no qualms keeping out the Free Folk (including innocent men, women, and children) to die, because they knew that a Wildling invasion inevitably meant raids and casualties on the south side of the Wall. Essentially at Hardhome the Others are doing more or less the same thing, killing people (including innocence), because those people are going to result in deaths on their side. The main difference is that the Others do the killing directly, and the Watch is allowing someone else to do the killing. Which tends to be how powerful empires operate; through institutional oppression. Just because a society aren’t killing people directly, doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for systematically oppressing people. The Westerosi, the Others, and the Free Folk, are all merely protecting themselves above all else, doing what they have to do.
You may at this point be asking:
“even if the Others know about the Azor Ahai and Prince That Was promised prophecy.. still aren’t the Others overreacting a bit to be doing all this in response to the mere existence of Jon Snow?”
and I’m sure there are still some among you are clinging to the narrative that:
“the Others are just antithetical to human life and are inevitably bent on human extinction and global winter”
After all, that’s what Melisandre says isn’t it? That they’re thralls of the Great Other, creatures of cold and death and darkness who oppose all warm blooded life and humanity. Well, maybe that attitude is exactly what is pushing the world to war.
Part 4 will be the conclusion of this series, and IF I turn out to be right it’s kind of mega-spoilers for some of the biggest mysteries of the series. We’ll talk about the true meaning of the war with the Others. The self fulfilling winds of prophecy and the nature of holy wars. The fate of the Wall and the place of our main character’s ambitions in the ultimate conflict. And we’ll reevaluate the great platitude at the opening of our story.
What does “Winter is Coming” really mean?