Despite the extensive lore, history, theories, prophecies, books, and shows about the Game of Thrones universe, we know next to nothing about its central antagonists.
Honestly, can you even definitively answer basic questions about the White Walkers? Like: Who are they? What do they want? Why have they returned now? What are their abilities? Who the hell is the Night King?
Some might think the answer is simple: the White Walkers are evil. But that’s the opposite of how creator George R. R. Martin sees this fantasy story.
“We don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly,” he said in an AssignmentX interview about the usual good vs. evil dichotomy of every other Lord of the Rings knock-off. For Martin, “a villain is a hero of the other side.”
The Game of Thrones fandom has been racking its collective brain for years trying to make the “bad ugly guys” (aka White Walkers) fit this worldview. And what they’ve come up with is mind-boggling.
There’s no doubt that there’s more to the White Walkers than meets the eye.
And now that the war against the dead is finally upon us, it’s more important than ever that we try and understand this elusive enemy.
First, who and what exactly are the White Walkers?
To clarify, White Walkers are a different species than the wights. Those skeletal undead zombies (whether humans or bears) actually have a hive-mind like connection to the White Walkers who reanimated them with ice magic.
Martin describes the “Others” (or White Walkers) as “strange, beautiful… inhuman, elegant, dangerous” creatures who have “a different sort of life.” Unlike the mindless undead, they’re intelligent and have their own motivations, military strategies, rituals, and even a language that sounds like “the cracking of ice on a winter lake.”
In Season 6, we learned that the Children of the Forest actually created the Night King as a weapon to fight against the invading humans, piercing his heart with dragonglass on a Weirwood tree.
A Season 3 scene demonstrated that White Walkers create more White Walkers by touching one of Craster’s sons by an alter of sorts (again, different from the undead Wights.)
While many legends say the White Walkers only come during winter, evidence suggests that they actually are winter. Both the dragons and the White Walkers appear tied to the irregular weather patterns in the world, with the dragons being associated with longer summers, and White Walker activity bringing cold, long nights along with them.
The White Walker Strategy
This season left many questioning the strategy of the White Walkers. I mean, how long have they been marching South for — about 6 seasons now?
Well, as immortal beings, the White Walkers don’t think about time like we do, for one thing.
For another, Season 7 finale director Jeremy Podeswa told Mashable that, “it’s really only now with the accumulation of numbers over the various battles and more undead being created, now there’s an army that can really do something.” Also, the “ice dragon has been a game changer for them, because the Wall was impenetrable before.”
Some even speculate that the entire “Beyond the Wall” episode was a strategic trap laid for Dany in order to get their hands on one of her babies.
The first Long Night
But this isn’t the first time the White Walkers marched south.
Legend says the Long Night was the most fearsome winter in history, lasting an entire generation thousands of years ago. When the White Walkers descended, they killed everything in their path, from men to mammoths and even Children of the Forest.
When only a few of the living remained, the stories say that the First Men and Children banded together. Then somehow, a figure called the Last Hero defeated the White Walkers, sending them back north — although the details of this defeat have always been sketchy. Following this, a Stark named Brandon built the Wall and created the Night’s Watch to ensure they’d never return.
But legends of the Long Night are not exclusive to Westeros.
Melisandre’s eastern religion is centered around R’hllor, the Lord of Light, who defeated the Great Other (a god of ice and death) and promised to return in the future as Azor Ahai to protect the realm from darkness once again.
Similar tales even reach Sothoryos, the furthest continent of the known world. In the kingdom of Yi Ti (fashioned after China), a structure called the Five Forts was created at the same time as the Wall in order to protect the people from “Demons of the Lion of Night.”
Or so the stories go.
Because George R. R. Martin often likes to remind his readers that ancient legends, history, and religions are extremely suspect. The facts are rewritten, and distorted by the bias of the victors.
Or, in the case of the White Walkers, the truth seems to have been lost to time entirely.
So what’s really going on?
There are a lot of hints (including confirmation from the author himself) that these tales about the White Walkers are falsehoods. That’s where sleuthy fan speculation comes in.
One of the most popular theories on the White Walkers proposes an entirely different perspective on these events that would be much more in line with the “bittersweet” ending Martin has promised fans.
Here’s the gist (though we suggest you read the whole Reddit thread for all the evidence): The White Walkers didn’t start this war against the living. After several millennia of dead silence, they’ve returned to march south again out of fear and anger that the humans have broken the ancient pact that actually ended the first Long Night.
The terms of the pact were simple: The White Walkers would chill out in the Land of Always Winter, if the humans left them alone and vowed never to use fire magic (like dragonglass and Valyrian steel) against them again. Oh, and there might’ve been some promise of regular human sacrifices.
Instead of the Wall being built by one measly Stark, this version of events has the White Walkers raising the giant ice wall themselves (which isn’t so far-fetched). It was built “not to seal themselves off but to mark their territory and protect themselves from… fire magic to the south.”
(This doesn’t quite explain why the Wall was previously impenetrable for them, but no theory’s perfect.)
Meanwhile, the “Last Hero” that supposedly swooped in and single-handedly defeated immortal ice gods were nothing more than a diplomat, who negotiated the pact. A pact that, like so many other alliances in Game of Thrones, was sealed by a marriage.
Fascinatingly, the books tell of a legend known as The Night’s King (confusingly, he’s not the same character as the show’s “Night King”): One of the earliest Lord Commanders — who was probably a Stark — married a beautiful “Corpse Queen” beyond the Wall, and ruled over the Night’s Watch from the Wall, overseeing the boundary separating the men from the Others.
Despite the fact that we haven’t seen a female White Walker yet, a union between a human and a Walker is certainly not unprecedented.
What the White Walkers want now
Don’t forget: the White Walkers only started marching in force against the humans after the birth of Dany’s dragons. They saw the red comet in the sky in Season 2, too, and would’ve known it signaled the return of fire magic.
This final betrayal of the pact the humans forgot eons ago might very well have been the last straw. Until then, they only killed the wildlings and crows who ventured too close to their domain.
Except, that is, for Craster’s wildling encampment with his daughter-wives from Season 2. Craster worshipped the White Walkers as gods, not demons. He gave them human sacrifices, and thus was spared for abiding by the rules of their ancient pact.
This proves that the White Walkers are creatures who can be negotiated with. And, from their perspective, they might very well see the living as a threat to their way of life. Indeed, men have already wiped out nearly every other magical being south of the Wall.
Many fans see the White Walkers as a force wishing to restore the world’s balance of ice and fire magic.
Because as the theory goes, men “have shown they can’t be trusted not to encroach on the Others’ territory and play with fire magic and risk destroying the world, so the Others have come to wipe them out — not out of pure, senseless malice… but out of a drive to survive. The Others believe they’re saving the world from Men who will, unchecked, destroy it.”
Why Jon is the key
If the legends are correct and the Night’s King was actually a Stark, this could mean, as the likely kings of winter who made the pact that ended the Long Night, the Starks share blood with the White Walkers.
This would explain a lot: a) why they share many of the same abilities (warging, greensight, resistance to cold), b) the White Walkers’ fascination with Bran and Jon, and c) the house words “Winter is Coming.” It’s not a warning. It was meant to remind everyone of their ancient pact, and the Starks’ magical ancestors.
If all of this sounds far-fetched, consider that the Targaryens — the “fire” in this Song of Ice and Fire — are said to have dragon’s blood, share telepathic connections to dragons, and are immune to fire.
The Season 7 finale also went out of its way to remind us that Jon is the literal embodiment of ice and fire, as a combination of both Stark (ice) and Targaryen (fire) blood. He also happens to be the only person in the world with experience in negotiating peace between warring factions north and south of the Wall.
Some believe Jon might actually become the new Night King in order to ensure peace. Others speculate that Craster’s sons can be turned into White Walkers (unlike other wildlings) because his “crow father” was actually a Stark or Targaryen with magical blood.
Still others speculate that the White Walkers are now searching for a new Corpse Queen, so they could reproduce naturally without relying on human sacrifices. (Our vote goes to Cersei, who’s already pretty frosty.)
Or, most simply of all, the Night King might just want revenge on the Children of the Forest who turned them into deathless monsters — and the world who rejected them.
Regardless, while the White Walkers remain fascinatingly unknowable and hard to pin down, one thing is inarguable. We haven’t heard the full story.
But, luckily and unluckily, the one being who can tell the story is flying down south now to ensure the whole world reckons with the truth.