Ask the Maester: The Origin of the Night’s King, the Wights, and DragonglassHBO
Ashley asks: “Can we get some more background on who [the Night’s King] is? What was his deal with taking babies and why is he showing up now?”
For book readers, one of the thrills of watching Game of Thrones has been the vicarious pleasure of watching the premium-cable masses ride our beloved Martin World Roller Coaster of blood and sadness. That’s evident from the numerous YouTube videos of unwitting Song of Ice and Fire virgins losing their collective shit as the ambitions of King Robb and House Stark disappeared in a cloud of arterial spray. As the show moves implacably past the novels, it will be interesting to see how the hard-core book readers — some of whom may be troubled by potential spoilers or frustrated with changes made to the story — react now that they’re riding blind just like everyone else. All that aside, I loved “Hardhome,” Episode 8 of Game of Thrones Season 5, not for the Tyrion-Dany tête-à-tête (though that was great) or for the 15 minutes of terrifying wildling Castlevania final-boss action (which was awesome), but because it finally revealed to everyone the longest of Martin’s long games, which the show set up in the first scene in Season 1. It’s the threat, both fictional and metafictional, that this meticulously crafted world of lords and kings, which we have all devoted so much time to following, is really just a house of cards standing in the path of an avalanche. That everything, despite Martin’s protestations against charges of nihilism, means nothing. What’s going on in Dorne? Not a lot. Everyone’s dead. In a way, it could be the greatest twist of all.
But I digress. The Night’s King!1 The Battle of Hardhome is a scene that exists in the books, kind of. In the books, wildlings do mass at Hardhome, the Night’s Watch does send a fleet of ships to attempt to ferry them out, and everyone does come under attack by “dead things in the water.” But all of that happens offscreen, so to speak. The reader finds out about the events at Hardhome via panicked raven messages that the expedition sends to Castle Black.
Let’s assume that Game of Thrones’s Night’s King is the same person who is referenced in the books (which seems a solid bet at this point). The origins of the Night’s King are shrouded in mystery and shame and stretch back 8,000 years to the fabled Age of Heroes, not long after the Wall was raised by Bran “the Builder” Stark. Some tales say the Night’s King was a Bolton, others say he was a Stark. Or he could’ve been a Skagosi or a Norrey or maybe a member of some forgotten house. Whoever he was, the folktales are specific about a few points. All agree that the Night’s King was once the 13th Lord Commander of the Watch, and that one day, while standing guard atop the Wall, he glimpsed a woman — with skin “white as the moon” and eyes a ghostly blue — in the woods on the far side. Later histories describe her explicitly as being a sorceress. And certainly there must’ve been something enchanting about her, because the Lord Commander’s thirst was such that he came down off the Wall, chased her through the woods, and joined her in an unholy union.
Now, in those days, the Watch was headquartered out of the Nightfort, the oldest and largest of the Watch’s castles. Today, as a result of institutional decay, the Nightfort and all of the Watch’s castles — except for Eastwatch, the Shadow Tower, and Castle Black — are abandoned. We actually saw the Nightfort in Season 3, when Sam and Gilly ran into Bran, Hodor, and the Wonder Twins there after the former group traversed the secret passageway that leads under the Wall and to the well inside the castle. Perhaps that’s how our 13th Lord Commander brought his pale bride back to the Nightfort. Whatever the case, the couple made themselves at home by enslaving the sworn brothers using dark magic. The Lord Commander then declared himself the Night’s King, and with Pale Woman as his queen, they carved out an evil kingdom for themselves, with the Nightfort at its center, and reigned unchecked for 13 terrible years. The North, y’all! Come visit! Foreshadowing the fight to come, it took an alliance between King Brandon “the Breaker” Stark, and the (possible first) King-beyond-the-Wall Joramun to finally break the Night’s King’s power.
Now, here’s where the theory that the Night’s King was/is an ancient member of House Stark gains some credence for me. After the Night’s King’s overthrow, it was discovered that, among other atrocities, he had been making sacrifices to the White Walkers. If the Night’s King were one of the Boltons, the Starks’ ancient enemies, or a member of any other house, great or small, you’d think the Kings in the North would be happy to trumpet that fact far and wide. That didn’t happen. Instead, all the Watch’s records pertaining to the time of the 13th Lord Commander were destroyed. Even speaking his name was forbidden, Voldemort-style. Who else would have the motivation AND the power to suppress the Night’s Watch’s records except the Stark Kings in the North?
All of the above seems to fit the profile of the “Evil King Edgar Winter” we first saw last season taking one of Craster’s infant sons to the heart of winter to turn him, we think, into a baby White Walker. Still, there’s a lot that’s unclear about the Night’s King’s relationship to the White Walkers and the Long Night. As you may remember, the original Long Night was the legendary generations-long winter that fell on the world like a headsman’s ax, under cover of which the White Walkers first appeared on their dead horses to lay waste to Westeros and who knows where else. It was the appearance of the White Walkers that spurred the formation of the Night’s Watch and necessitated the raising of the Wall, meaning the Walkers existed before the Night’s King. Perhaps, as with any other kingdom, there have been numerous Night’s Kings. Perhaps the victory of humanity that ended the Long Night so diminished the White Walkers’ strength that it took the Night’s King sacrificing children for some 8,000 years for them to build up their numbers again. Or perhaps there’s some deeper, natural cycle going on that we don’t understand. Do the Walkers cause the Long Night or vice versa? We don’t know. For me, though, the most interesting question regarding the Night’s King is this: Where’s the Pale Queen?
Koa asks: “What’s the difference between White Walkers and the zombies of the undead? Why aren’t they all White Walkers?”
There are two classes of frozen evil. The first is the White Walkers. They have the power to raise the dead, their bodies are made of some kind of magical ice that is seemingly impervious to human weapons save those made of dragonglass or Valyrian steel, and they have some kind of human-like hierarchical structure. They are not actually undead, but exist as some kind of strange and inhuman form of other-life.
The second class, subservient to the White Walkers, is the wights. Wights are basically zombies:2 animal or human corpses that act as minions of the White Walkers. Potentially anything dead that’s within the range of a White Walker’s power can become a wight. Certainly any animal or human foe that falls in battle to the White Walkers and their wights will in turn become a wight. Bears, horses, mammoths, giants, people — whatever. The old tales even speak of wights that were giant spiders. Unlike White Walkers, wights don’t require special methods — such as dragonglass and Valyrian steel — to kill. Putting them down is simply a matter of hacking and slashing the zombie corpse into small enough pieces that it can no longer hurt anyone. Fire is the surest way to dispatch them.
As for why every ice zombie isn’t a White Walker, hard to say. We know very little about the magical process that creates them. Does the process only work with babies, or could an adult, like the 13th Lord Commander, be turned? Is there a limit to how many babies the Night’s King can turn in a given year or a given season? Is the Night’s King the only entity that can create White Walkers? We do not know. Clearly, though, something about the mechanism used to create White Walkers seems to limit their numbers.
Daniel asks: “It seemed kind of odd how a huge mass of wights, who were blasting their bodies through the gates and walls to kill the Wildling/Night’s Watch brothers, would have allowed a little pond to stop them from going after Jon Snow’s boat and the rest of the boats heading out to sea. Are they afraid of water, or were they just following the lead of the demon-walker guy in charge?”
Unless the show has changed this drastically, they were following the Night’s King’s lead. They could swim or wade or whatever it is they do if they wanted to. As mentioned above, in the books, a message sent to Castle Black mentions “dead things in the woods” and “dead things in the water.”
Charles asks: “Now that we know that a Valyrian steel sword can kill White Walkers, who are the other people who possess one, thereby being a threat to the Others?”
It’s a very, very short list. Way too short to make a difference. In all of the North, we know for sure of two Valyrian weapons. Brienne, lurking outside Winterfell, has Oathkeeper — one of the two blades forged from Ice, the Stark family sword, which Tywin Lannister had melted down. And Jon, of course, has Longclaw, originally the sword of Lord Commander Mormont. The dagger used by the unnamed assassin in the attempt on Bran Stark’s life in Season 1 was Valyrian, but who knows where that thing is now.
In the rest of Westeros, things don’t look much better. There’s Heartsbane, wielded by Sam’s dad, Randyll Tarly in the Reach. Lady Forlorn is not only a country-pop trio, it’s also the name of the family sword of House Corbray of the Vale. Joffrey’s Widow’s Wail, the other sword forged from Ned Stark’s Ice, is now presumably in the possession of King Tommen, who wouldn’t cut a piece of roasted venison without asking his mother’s permission first. The tiny Iron Islands boast two Valyrian steel weapons: Nightfall is the family sword of the Harlaws, an ancient and powerful Ironborn house; and House Drumm hold Red Rain, which their ancestor Hilmar stole from some unnamed knight, thus earning Hilmar the sobriquet “The Cunning.” Finally, rumor has it that tiny and ancient House Celtigar have, among the many treasures overfilling their castle on Claw Isle, an ax of Valyrian steel.
Additionally, there are a half-dozen notable Valyrian weapons whose whereabouts are unknown. Most famous of these are the original Lannister family sword Brightroar, lost when King Tommen II disappeared in Valyria back in the day; Blackfyre, the sword of Aegon the Conqueror, which is probably in Essos somewhere; and Dark Sister, the sword of Aegon the Conqueror’s more martial sister-wife Visenya, which was last known to be held by the Targaryen great bastard Brynden Rivers. Brynden was sent to Castle Black back in 233 AC, and he eventually rose to Lord Commander. If Lord Brynden was allowed to take the sword when he took the black (which seems highly unlikely), there’s a chance he may still have it with him under the great weirwood far beyond the Wall.
As for making more Valyrian steel, dragonfire is often mentioned as being part of the process used to make the weapons, along with a careful folding of the metal and treating it with some kind of magic. So, while the reappearance of dragons theoretically makes forging new weapons possible, because of access to their fire and the reawakening of magic tied to the rebirth of the beasts, it’s the spellcasting part of the equation that remains a problem. Notably, the Targaryens — in the roughly 150 years of their nearly 300-year reign in Westeros during which they possessed multiple dragons — never forged a new Valyrian weapon. Considering the rarity of the weapons, it seems certain that they would’ve forged more steel if they knew how. Obviously, the spells used to create Valyrian steel were not well known, even among the Valyrian elite.
Kristen asks: “A couple questions about dragonglass: Is dragonglass manufactured, or is it a natural resource? Do you need dragons to create it? Is it similar to Valyrian steel, in that there’s a finite amount of it in the world, and it’s only controlled by a fortunate few?”
Dragonglass is a naturally occurring, volcanic glass, described by the Maesters as being “forged in the fires of the gods, far below the earth.” The Night’s Watch’s records from the Age of Heroes tell us that the Children of the Forest used to supply the Watch with 100 daggers per year. Also, we know that the tunnels under the castle of Dragonstone on the island of the same name (which is still held by Stannis Baratheon) are rich with multicolored, boulder-size deposits of dragonglass. The Valyrians called dragonglass “frozen fire” and were known to use it to create mysterious black candles. For what purpose, no one really knows. I would assume that the ruins of Valyria, formerly the land of numerous magical volcanoes, would contain plenty of dragonglass for anyone brave enough to go get it.
I guess it’s possible that Dany could use her dragons to create dragonglass through concentrated and controlled fire-breathing on the right kind of igneous rock. But if she could control her dragons like that, then a much easier and more direct way to kill wights and White Walkers, it seems to me, would be to simply have the dragons breathe fire directly on said wights and White Walkers.
James asks: “What ever happened to Benjen Stark?”
Unknown, in the books and the show. For those who don’t recall, Benjen Stark went on ranging beyond the Wall in Season 1 and never returned. I assume he’s dead or some form of sort-of-dead as there are a lot of things that can kill a person out there.
Curtis asks: “I rewatched a couple episodes of Season 1 last night. I can’t remember if we find out later, but what happened to the old lady that was teaching Sansa in King’s Landing how to be a proper lady? Mainly I ask because she is dressed very similarly to the ‘nuns’ holding Cersei prisoner in this season.”
That was Septa Mordane. Joffrey had her beheaded in Season 1.
Andrew asks: “Does Jon Snow actually have authority to give the Wildlings land south of the wall? Won’t that ruffle the Bolton’s feathers? Don’t they technically own/control those lands?”
Yes, he does. When the Watch was first formed, King Bran Stark3 gave the brothers, in perpetuity, all the land that extended 25 leagues4 south from the Wall. This area became known as Brandon’s Gift and you can think of it as the Watch’s supermarket. It’s where they farm and hunt and generally resupply. Several thousand years later, Good Queen Alysanne, the wife of King Jaehaerys I “The Conciliator” Targaryen, visited the Night’s Watch on the back of her dragon, Silverwing. She became enamored of the brave brothers of the Watch — probably because the organization was not yet a warren of rapists and murderers — and convinced her husband to give them another 25 leagues of land on top of Brandon’s Gift. This land is known as the New Gift. But everyone just refers to the entire 50-league area as “the Gift.” These lands are administered by the Watch, and from a purely legal perspective, they can do whatever they want with it. This doesn’t mean that the Boltons or the rest of the North would necessarily be happy about it or stand idly by and do nothing simply because the Watch has the right to parcel out the Gift as they see fit.
Brendan asks: “Regarding Jon’s big plan with the Wildlings/Free Folk. The idea (in both the book and, now, the TV show) seems to be to resettle them in the Gift (the land south of the Wall bequeathed to the now anemic Night’s Watch). Aside from the obvious benefit of bumping up the number of potential defenders and putting them on the ‘right’ side of The Wall for the impending White Walker invasion, my recollection from the books and similar inferences from the show is that the Watch’s food stores can barely support their own meager population and the plan is for their northern neighbors to earn their keep by working the land and increasing the population buffer prior to the eventual call to arms. However, as we are constantly reminded, Winter is Coming. Doesn’t that single temporal/meteorological detail somewhat stymie Jon’s otherwise admirable plan?”
The Watch probably have enough food for themselves. The problem, in the books and the show, was that they couldn’t feed themselves and Stannis’s army. With Stannis on the march, and assuming the Watch have enough food laid by under Castle Black for just their use, the plan should work. The Free Folk have survived for thousands of years Beyond the Wall, in constant snow conditions, winter after winter. It wouldn’t be easy, not least because of Northern resentment, but, living off the Gift, richer lands than they have ever known, the wildlings should be able to look after themselves.
Scenes of the Week: Season 5 Death Foreshadowing Greatest Hits
A character on Game of Thrones is about to be killed off when …
The character has a random speaking part.
The character is a random wildling.
The character is a random wildling with a speaking part.
The character just told a story about the good old days while smiling, bathed in golden sunlight.
The character just kissed his/her children, promised to be right behind them, then gazed longingly upon their boat as it rowed away.