Ask the Maester: The History of the Wall, Invasion Strategies, and Maester Aemon


Matthew asks, “So in just about every version of a map of Westeros shows that the Wall stops on it’s left side, but land beyond the wall clearly continues out towards the west, like you could see down past the Wall from that section of the land of always winter. So my question is: Why not go around the wall (right side if you are looking south/left side if you are looking north)? What’s the deal on that side of the Wall?”

Good question. First, I think we should run through a short history of the Wall itself and its surrounding geography. Note: We’re talking about events from the distant past, so the line between fake legend and fake history is impossible to pick out, but the story of the Wall goes something like this.

Around 10,000 years before Aegon’s Conquest, give or take a millennium, there was a period of time in Westerosi history that has come to be referred to as “The Age of Heroes.” Many of the famous great houses of Westeros trace their founding back to this time, including the Lannisters, Greyjoys, and Starks, as well as, a bit less directly, the Tyrells and Baratheons. The Age of Heroes started as a time of relative peace with the signing of the Pact, a treaty ending the long war between the First Men and a mysterious race of creatures, indigenous to the continent, known as the Children of the Forest, whose religion now forms the basis for the Northern belief system. Sometime after the the Pact, as you might remember Old Nan telling the newly paralyzed Bran in Season 1, a great winter befell the continent, and along with it, darkness. The cold and dark stretched for years, perhaps even a generation, and came to be known as the Long Night. It was during the Long Night that the White Walkers first appeared in the North with their army of blue-eyed ice zombies. Advancing south, the Walkers crushed every town, village, and castle before them like Cousin Orson with his bugs, adding the slain to their growing army of dead things, getting stronger with every kill. But, proving it is at least possible for George R.R. Martin to conceive of a happy ending, the White Walkers were at last beaten back.

How the Walkers were defeated is subject to interpretation, with different characters and cultures from the books recounting differing, sometimes self-serving, versions of the War for the Dawn. Whether humanity’s victory was won by a single legendary hero with an enchanted sword, or a coalition of the First Men and the Children of the Forest, or the forces of the first brothers of the Night’s Watch, or some combination thereof is unknown. But we can safely assume the discovery that the White Walkers could be killed by obsidian — also called “dragonglass” — played a key role. So easy, even Samwell Tarly can do it.

In the wake of of the Long Night, Bran “The Builder” Stark — the O.G. King in the North, legendary founder of House Stark — with the help of magic, and perhaps using the labor of giants, raised the Wall and built Winterfell. Somewhere in that time, the Night’s Watch was founded, and the land directly south of the Wall, stretching out 25 leagues, was given over to the Watch — either by Bran the Builder himself or one of the other numerous Bran Starks throughout history — so that they could feed and clothe themselves. Later (like, thousands of years later), this area, known as “The Gift,” was extended out to 50 leagues at the behest of Queen Alysanne Targaryen; since then, the villages within this new area pay their taxes to the Watch.


Back to the question about the western edge of the Wall. The two westernmost castles along the Wall, Westwatch (abandoned) and the Shadow Tower (manned), are separated by a ravine known as the Gorge, which is spanned by the cheerfully named Bridge of Skulls. The Wall, technically speaking, ends at the Shadow Tower, with the Gorge acting as the barrier to western-flanking movements. Why staff the Shadow Tower instead of Westwatch? Because if something happened to the Bridge of Skulls, anyone at Westwatch would be trapped in Wildling country, and linking up with Castle Black, Eastwatch, and the rest of humanity would mean trying to navigate the Gorge. Why not staff both? The Watch just doesn’t have enough manpower.

Now, the Wall is, as we’ve noted, thousands of years old, and in that time, Wildlings have tried every conceivable way to get over, under, and around it. Every year, Rangers catch small bands of Wildlings attempting to scale the wall or cross the Gorge, some even pushing out into the Bay of Ice or the Bay of Seals in small boats. History even tells us of an ill-fated yet ambitious tunneling attempt. These are all viable routes past the Wall, just not for 100,000 people. Remember, Mance’s army isn’t an army of conquest, per se — they’re refugees attempting to escape the White Walkers, taking their families, animals, and belongings with them. You can’t put a mammoth in a sealskin boat.

Stephen asks, “If, as we’ve been told up this point, Mance Rayder’s army truly outnumbers the Night’s Watch by 1000 to 1, why not just take the Wall in one fell swoop? In testing Castle Black’s defenses, Mance is now down two giants and one (or more?) wooly mammoths. Maybe those were the expendable B-list giants of the crew, but it seems pointless to be wasting time and manpower when he could easily take Castle Black with his entire army.”

In this regard, the show diverges slightly from the books, in which the Wildling army keeps more or less constant pressure on the Wall, falling back only after losing, like, several dozen mammoths. That said, the Wildlings aren’t a disciplined fighting force, well versed in multi-unit, large-scale battles. They are raiders, used to fighting in groups of at most a few dozen. So it very well may be that Mance wants his forces to keep going, but they just won’t follow orders. I mean, if a giant doesn’t want to go out there, no one is making him. But I agree — tactically, it seems to be a mistake. One giant got the gate up on his own. Have another one wedge some trees under the gate while it’s up, and Mance is good to go.

Mark asks, “I am personally curious about Giants. They are like people, but much bigger! And they have giant bows and mammoths and shit.”


What we know about giants — besides their existence, which really should be enough — mostly comes from Wildling folklore. One hundred percent legit giant facts: They are huge as fuck, they ride mammoths, the males and females are basically indistinguishable from each other, and they communicate using the Old Tongue, the original language of the First Men, still used by the Wildlings. The Wildlings say that giants — especially the females — will occasionally take on human lovers, and the occasional products of these couplings are the freakishly large half-breeds. Back in Season 1, Osha, upon seeing the fleshy trunk of Hodor’s Hodor swinging like a meaty pendulum, suggests to Bran that Hodor may have giant blood in him.

Depending on how closely the showrunners adapted the source material, the giant Grenn & Co. killed at the gate was Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg, known in the common tongue as Mag the Mighty, a famous giant warrior and perhaps a leader among his people.

Patrick asks, “What was reasoning behind Jon Snow leaving his sword behind before going North of the Wall?”

It’s Valyrian steel and essentially priceless; better to leave the sword with a friend than to have it end up on a barbarian’s hip. He’s not getting close to Mance with it anyway. The only way he gets to talk to Mance is under flag of parley and unarmed.

Dani asks, “Why didn’t Jon take Ghost with him? Can we get a count on remaining direwolves? I think 4 remain — Jon’s, Bran’s, the youngest brother (whatever his name is) and Arya’s should be out there in the wild around King’s Landing.”

I think the absence of direwolf action throughout the series can basically be chalked up to: CGI is expensive. Also, the Wildlings are familiar with wargs and they would recognize the bond Jon has with Ghost. I mean, Ghost is honestly better than a sword, so if he’s leaving the sword, he should probably leave the wolf.

Remaining Stark wolves: Ghost (Jon), Summer (Bran), Shaggydog (Rickon), and probably Nymeria (Arya).

Who were the notable members of the Night’s Watch who died last night?



Nature of death: Ygritte arrow through neck.

Sent to the Wall for refusing the advances of a nobleman, Pyp is introduced during Season 1, training in the yard with Jon Snow. Along with Sam and Grenn, he was one of Jon’s closest allies at Castle Black.


Nature of death: Died securing the gate through the Wall — along with five of his brothers — against a rampaging giant.

Strong, not that smart, and loyal, Grenn is another Season 1 Night’s Watch recruit. Part of Lord Mormont’s ill-fated ranging to the Fist of the First Men, Grenn had previously survived the White Walkers and the mutiny at Craster’s Keep, so he was due.

Mike asks, “So Roose Bolton officially recognized Ramsay as his son and gave him the right (I assume) to use his House name. Is this a common or looked down upon practice? It seemed pretty easy, so why the heck did Ned not do it to Jon Snow?”

Legitimizing a bastard can only be done via royal decree; the practice is rare and, when done, frequently a source of problems — i.e., wars. Roose’s part in the Red Wedding meant Tywin owed him a solid. As for Ned, he had three sons and, though he could’ve asked Robert, adding Jon via legitimization probably wouldn’t have been a good idea. Does Jon jump in front of Bran and Rickon in the line of succession? You see the problem, and that’s assuming [redacted].

Peter asks, “I knew Maester Aemon was a Targaryen, but why would he take the Black?”

Short version: to avoid a crisis of royal succession.

As we’ve seen with Tywin Lannister’s various familial problems, a noble not having children to carry on the family name is a situation of grave concern. For a king, the situation is even more dire, as the king is the physical embodiment of the state, and his offspring represent the continued stability of that state. Maester Aemon grew up in a time when the Targaryen regime had the exact opposite problem of the one currently facing Tywin, but an equally significant one: too many children with their own families. Any person with siblings knows about childhood squabbling over toys, the lingering effects of perceived or actual parental favoritism, perhaps even unseemly arguing over the possessions of a deceased loved one, etc., etc. Now imagine that exact state of petty, internecine squabbling, but among people with almost limitless wealth and power, some of whom are either certifiably insane or otherwise mentally disabled, and you can begin to understand the danger. Aemon’s father was Maekar Targaryen, one of five adult children (four brothers and a sister) of King Daeron II and Myriah Martell of Dorne. Three of Daeron’s sons already had children of their own, so, fearing the type of quarrel that could easily lead to civil war, he sent young Aemon to the Citadel. Now, this gets complicated, even by Game of Thrones standards, but basically, a chain of events including a plague, the unsuitable nature of various Targaryens in the line of succession (the probable result of inbreeding), and the political fallout from a civil war called the Blackfyre Rebellion led to Aemon being offered the Iron Throne, which he obviously refused. The crown passed to Aemon’s younger brother, who became Aegon V. Aegon wanted his brother to remain in King’s Landing to help him rule. But fearing he could become the focus of a plot to overthrow his brother, Aemon decided to take the black, arriving at Eastwatch nearly 70 years before the events of the show.

Scene of the Week


“Hey, Ma.”


“What’s up?”


“Let’s slide.”


“Let’s slide.”





Filed Under: Game of Thrones, TV, ask the maester, HBO, Jason Concepcion

Jason Concepcion is a staff writer for Grantland and coauthor of We’ll Always Have Linsanity.

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