Part I of Ice Preserves, Video Essay is available on YouTube
Why were the Others created? Was it truly just to destroy humans or could we have been wrong about them all along? Could they, in fact, have been created for one purpose and weaponized for another? What if they were mobilized not to destroy humanity, but to save it?
This was one of the primary questions I’ve been mulling over the past few years on my own. Since I’ve never really engaged much with the forums (they were far too intimidating for me), I don’t know if this all has been covered before or by whom. So, if I retread old ground, forgive me.
I should also let you know a bit about my process. When it comes to theories, I think in terms of “plausible possibilities.” I like to look at aspects of the story from all perspectives, asking questions and poking at potential interpretations that may or may not end up being accurate. It’s part of how I put pieces together. So for this, and any other essay/video, my goal is not so much to replace current theories as to look at something from a slightly different angle to see how it holds up, though with textual evidence.
As always, thanks also to George R. R. Martin for writing these books and to Alice Pike Barney, late 19th and early 20th century impressionist painter to whom I owe all of my gorgeous artwork for the site.
This essay is available in written form over at my website gnellis.com as well as my other nerdy media analysis writing and the lyrics for my ASOIAF parodies. All articles mentioned in this essay will be linked below in the video description, so make sure to clink on those if you’re interested.
So without further ado, Ice Preserves Part One: Were the Others Actually Created to Destroy Humanity?
From the Darkness Beneath the Trees
From the moment we meet the Others in the prologue, they’re cloaked in mystery. These White Walkers and watchers of the wood have their own language, a sense of humor and disdain, icy armor glitters in the moonlight, yet they vanish as quickly and silently as they appear. By the time the main story starts, we’re asking ourselves, Where do they come from? What do they want? Why are they seemingly so antagonistic toward humans (or at the very least toward certain humans)?
In his series of essays on the Long Night and the Others, Lucifer Means Lightbringer has pretty convincingly, at least to my mind, laid out arguments in favor of the Others coming from the trees. After all, the first time we meet one of these white shadows, it’s coming out of the woods,
A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.
… They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Will had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hugged the tree, and kept the silence.—A Game of Thrones, Prologue
Not only does the Other literally “emerge from the dark of the wood,” its armor is dappled with the color of the trees. Note also the reference to moonlight on water, as if the icy armor and weapons glow with reflected moonlight.
Now take a look at this scene from the battle of Whispering Wood, where Catelyn Stark sees part of Robb’s host riding out of the trees,
Catelyn sat on her horse, unmoving, with Hal Mollen and her guard around her, and she waited as she had waited before, for Brandon and Ned and her father. She was high on the ridge, and the trees hid most of what was going on beneath her. A heartbeat, two, four, and suddenly it was as if she and her protectors were alone in the wood. The rest were melted away into the green.
Yet when she looked across the valley to the far ridge, she saw the Greatjon’s riders emerge from the darkness beneath the trees. They were in a long line, an endless line, and as they burst from the wood there was an instant, the smallest part of a heartbeat, when all Catelyn saw was the moonlight on the points of their lances, as if a thousand willowisps were coming down the ridge, wreathed in silver flame.—A Game of Thrones, Catelyn X
Not only are they in a location called “the Whispering Wood”—bringing to mind the whispering of the weirwood trees that Osha calls the gods speaking—we have the same symbolic elements as in the prologue: emerging from the darkness of the trees, weapons and armor glowing with moonlight, the melting or running of water, and the idea of being merged or one with the trees. What matters most here is the idea that both the Others and the Greatjon’s forces, who are symbolic parallels to the Others, come from the dark shadows beneath the trees, as if extensions of those shadows.
While the context of the prologue and the Whispering Wood seems to put the literal and symbolic Others on the offensive, much symbolic and thematic evidence seems to point to the Others being first and foremost a kind of defensive mechanism. In fact, that idea is present in both of the preceding chapters. In the prologue, the Others emerge as a response to Waymar leading a ranging that incurs on their territory. Will, his guide, and the woods themselves warn him to turn back every step of the way. It’s the first line of the chapter, the book, and the series itself, in fact.
Similarly, Robb’s forces hidden in the Whispering Wood are responding to the unjustified Lannister incursions into the Riverlands. (And yes, I do say unjustified; no Tywin apology here, thanks.) They may be an attacking force, but it stems from a defensive and protective posture rather than an invading one.
The defensive role of the Others isn’t merely contextual or limited to such passages; all we need do is look at their symbolic parallels in the series. The Night’s Watch, an inverse parallel to the Others, is a primarily defensive order.
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.—A Game of Thrones, Jon VI
There’s a reason it’s called a ‘watch’ and not, say, a strike team. All of the roles mentioned in the vows are first and foremost defensive. We begin with the phrase, “sword in the darkness,” but every metaphor mentioned thereafter defines what that means. They’re watchers on the walls, i.e., lookouts. Though fire is one of the ways to kill a wight, a fire that burns against the cold, seems to me to imply that its function is likely meant as protective—it keeps the cold at bay. They ‘bring’ the light to end the night, another protective measure. Like a fire that keeps the cold at bay and protects people by providing warmth, bringing the dawn ends the night (and cold) for good. A horn that wakes the sleepers hearkens back to being a watcher on the walls, as one of the main functions a lookout has both in-universe and in our own world history was to sound the alarm. The vows end with, “[I am] the shield that guards the realms of men,” which brings us back to martial imagery, but in the role of a guardian.
In fact, the Night’s Watch vows is a series of parallel statements that forms a chiasm. A chiasm is a literary device found in Hebrew poetry where a series of ideas or themes build to a central point and then are reiterated in reverse order. It’s like Rusted Revolver’s ‘we start back’ concept, as explicated by Lucifer Means Lightbringer. But don’t worry, while it sounds complicated, chiasm doesn’t require reading events in backward order. Trust me, it makes more sense as an example than when trying to explain it. Basically, if you have ideas A, B, C, and D, a chiasm reads like this:
[*Note: The parenthesis around D’— called “D prime”—means that sometimes the central idea is repeated, but not always.]
For example, in the book of Joel, we have the following example of a Hebrew chiasm,
As you can see, the ideas from the first half (A, B, and C) are echoed or rephrased in the second half with the ‘main point’ in the middle. This is an example where the central idea (D), is not repeated, but there are others where the central idea gets repeated/rephrased as well.
Bringing this back to the Night’s Watch vows, they read as follows:
A: I am the sword in the darkness. A: warrior/defender
B: I am the watcher on the walls. B: lookout
C: I am the fire that burns against the cold, C: flame/light
C’: [I am] the light that brings the dawn, C’: flame/light
B’: [I am] the horn that wakes the sleepers, B’: lookout
A’: [I am] the shield that guards the realms of men. A’: warrior/defender
Reading the second half, we see that shield parallels sword, which implies that being a ‘sword in the darkness’ is likely a defensive position rather than an offensive one.
A bit of interesting food for thought: If the Night’s Watch wielded swords that somehow glowed with their own fire like Dawn or a lit glass candle, that would provide yet another parallel to C/C’. As wielders of light, they provide light to see, warmth to protect against the cold, and end the night by bringing light/dawn. As the idea of being/bringing light and fire occupies the central position in the chiasm, it’s probably the most important function of the Night’s Watch. So their swords being made of or ‘holding’ light somehow would further reinforce both the centrality of their role as ‘lightbringers’ (yeah, I went there) and guardians against the long, cold night.
And recall that these seem to be the central tenants of the Night’s Watch; these are the words Sam must say to pass through the Black Gate. The most important thing to know about the Night’s Watch, therefore, is that they’re meant as a defensive force; above all, they’re guardians wielding sword and light to preserve and protect, not attack or conquer.
The Night’s Watch as guardians and protectors ought to be in the forefront of our mind when we read about the creation of the Kingsguard:
It was Visenya, not Aegon, who decided the nature of the Kingsguard. Seven champions for the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, who would all be knights. She modeled their vows upon those of the Night’s Watch, so that they would forfeit all things save their duty to the king.—The World of Ice and Fire, The Targaryen Kings: Aegon I
While we know that Visenya had the first part of the vows in mind when creating the Kingsguard—hence the mention of “forfeit[ing] all things save their duty to the king”—we can’t overlook the central tenants of the Night’s Watch vows either. After all, Visenya created the Kingsguard to protect Aegon from assassination,
On one occasion in 10 AC, Aegon and Visenya were both attacked in the streets of King’s Landing, and if not for Visenya and Dark Sister, the king might not have survived. Despite this, the king still believed that his guards were sufficient to his defense; Visenya convinced him otherwise. (It is recorded that when Aegon pointed out his guardsmen, Visenya drew Dark Sister and cut his cheek before his guards could react. “Your guards are slow and lazy,” Visenya is reported to have said, and the king was forced to agree.)—The World of Ice and Fire, The Targaryen Kings: Aegon I
The Kingsguard, who serve as excellent symbolic parallels to the Others, weren’t created to attack but to defend.
We don’t know yet why the Faith Militant was created, but we do know that they function primarily as a defensive force as well. Both the Warrior’s Sons and the Poor Fellows—the apt symbolically named “swords” and “stars” (hey there, white sword and blue star Others)—seem to have been intended to guard, whether it be the holy places, the High Septon himself, or pilgrims of the Faith.
Thus, analogues to the Others share one thing in common: attack isn’t their primary function. They’re defenders. Which makes sense if the Others are a defensive response to the invasion of the weirwood net, a kind of white blood cell immune response, if you will. They only attack as a form of defense, like the Greatjon’s forces in the Whispering Wood or the Others in the prologue when Waymar travels too deep into the forest.
He Cast Aside His Broken Shield, and Suddenly He was the One On The Attack
So, how do the Others become mobilized to attack all humanity? Because to hear Old Nan tell it, that’s precisely what happened during the Long Night.
“In that darkness, the Others came for the first time,” she said as her needles went click click click. “They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.”—A Game of Thrones, Bran IV
If the Others are a defensive mechanism from the weirwoods, likely after the invasion of Azor Ahai, how did they come to represent such ruthless destruction? It makes sense for the Others to defend against invaders, but the shift from defensive response to the hatred of ‘everything with hot blood in its veins’ sounds like literal overkill.
Now, the first possible answer is that Old Nan may be just plain wrong. Legends grow in the telling, especially after eight thousand years, and it may be that the Others weren’t as hell bent on annihilation as Old Nan says. Their conquests may have been more limited, and less slash-and-burn, as we’ve been led to believe.
But for now, let’s take the concept of total annihilation of humanity at face value and see where it gets us. The first question I have is, if the Others are a creation of the Children of the Forest, why would they take such a stance? The Children as a whole don’t seem like aggressive, ‘kill all humans’ type entities. They’re not robots who drink too much and want me to kiss their shiny metal ass, after all. The parallels with the elves of Lord of the Rings and the Sithi of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series implies peaceful, nature loving beings who would not choose genocide, even when faced with their own annihilation.
Perhaps one person or a sect of Children may have wished harm to all humans, something I’ll come back to in part two, but I find the idea that the Children of the Forest as a whole created the Others in order to kill all humans unlikely. Especially if the symbolism is pointing us to the Others as being primarily defensive rather than offensive. Genocide of an entire race including innocents and non-combatants isn’t defensive.
So while I suppose it is still technically possible that the Others were created with the intention of killing all human beings, I don’t find that theory particularly compelling.
One could posit an unintentional overreaction or magic gone awry. Let’s go back to the immune response metaphor for a bit. Sometimes, the human immune system ‘overreacts’ to bacterial or viral threats. Autoimmune diseases frequently stem from the body attacking itself, thinking that healthy cells are foreign cells that must be killed. If you play Pokemon, just think of it like, “it hurt itself in its confusion.” Perhaps the Others were meant to only kill those who had invaded the trees but got out of control and started killing all humans. It’s a possibility, and one I can’t disprove.
The possibility I find more compelling is that the Others were created with one purpose in mind and became hijacked for another purpose altogether. We see this kind of situation happen with the symbolic Other parallels. Visenya created the Kingsguard to protect Aegon I from assassination, but then Aegon II comes along and uses the Kingsguard to assure his usurpation of Rhaenyra’s throne by capturing and killing those who would oppose him. Aerys II takes advantage of the protective function of the Kingsguard to abuse his wife without consequence. Joffrey uses the Kingsguard to regularly beat and humiliate his fiancée Sansa, not unlike Maegor possibly ordering Kingsguard Ser Owen Bush to remove Ceryse Hightower’s tongue and ‘accidentally’ ending up killing her. In the hands of a cruel, oppressive king, the Kingsguard becomes a tool of aggression and harm instead of a shield.
Again, we don’t know exactly how the Faith Militant got its start, but we know it served a protective function more often than not. The Poor Fellows escorted and protected pilgrims of the Faith, and the original knights of the Warrior’s sons were said to be holy men who fought demons and dragons. Fighting dragons, eh? What can that possibly mean?
Perhaps at some point in their early history the Faith Militant fought literal dragons, but we do know they fought some symbolic ones (riding literal ones) in recent history. After Aegon’s conquest, the Faith Militant is fairly consistently pitted against the Targaryens. In fact, outside of Dorne, they’re the most consistent face of resistance to the invasion and conquest of the Targaryens for the first hundred years or so after Aegon, Visenya, and Rhaenys decide they want to rule Westeros. Perhaps not always militaristically, but they are the face of cultural resistance, as they repeatedly oppose the Targaryen practices of marrying siblings and having multiple wives. They rebelled against Aenys I when he wanted to marry his children to each other, fought against Maegor throughout his reign due to his desire to wed multiple wives, and were a threat to Jaehaerys I during his regency due to his desire to marry his younger sister Alysanne. An order of guardians who resist the invasion of dragon-blooded people? That’s exactly what the Others seem to be.
However, we also know the Faith Militant has at least once become embroiled in inter-religious conflicts as a weapon of aggression. Prior to Aegon’s conquest, King Humfrey I Teague utilized them to suppress the worship of the Old Gods in the riverlands. Houses Blackwood, Vance, and Tully rebelled, eventually defeating King Humfrey I with the aid of Storm King Arlan III Durandon, who then added the riverlands to his realm.
Moving on, let’s think once again of the Night’s Watch. As their vows proclaim, they’re meant to guard. Yet more than once in the history of this order, a Lord Commander has attempted to declare himself king and/or use the Night’s Watch as a military force against the other kingdoms, including…dun dun dun the Night’s King himself.
Yes, that’s right. The Night’s King—one option for the progenitor of the Others—is an example of someone who turned a defensive force into an aggressive one. But before we dive into that, let’s summarize where we are now.
We have seen multiple examples of an order of knights or guardians that’s intended for good, defensive purposes that becomes a tool of aggression and hate in the hands of the wrong authority figure. The Kingsguard, Night’s Watch, and Warrior’s Sons are like the white, black, and rainbow swords each of these orders is compared to: what role they play and their use depends entirely on who is wielding them.
It therefore seems reasonable to posit the same might be true for the Others. While originally a defensive response to the invasion of the weirwood net and likely meant to be a protective measure, in the hands of the wrong person, they became a tool of aggression.
Wielding the White Sword
So, the Others may not be inherently evil in and of themselves. Or at the very least, not initially created for evil purposes or to wipe out all of humanity.
I believe I have good reason to propose such a theory, as Martin loves this kind of ambiguity. Killing the king to help your father stage a coup sounds like raw ambition until you learn said king was systematically raping his wife and planned on blowing up an entire city so he could transform into a dragon. Killing your wife to forge a magical sword to save the world sounds like necessary evil…until we learn that this very act may have caused the Long Night disaster in the first place and it may not have been done from pure motives. Jaime killing Aerys II might be heroic and Azor Ahai killing Nissa Nissa may be villainous, or at the very least the action of an anti-hero. In short, I think Martin wants us ask questions of the ‘official’ narrative based not on the sword itself, but on who is wielding it and why.
This brings me back to the Night’s King, the legendary thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who mayhaps was named Brandon, weaponized the Night’s Watch against the North, and was found ‘sacrificing to the Others’,
The gathering gloom put Bran in mind of another of Old Nan’s stories, the tale of Night’s King. He had been the thirteenth man to lead the Night’s Watch, she said; a warrior who knew no fear. “And that was the fault in him,” she would add, “for all men must know fear.” 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.
He brought her back to the Nightfort and proclaimed her a queen and himself her king, and with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will. For thirteen years they had ruled, Night’s King and his corpse queen, till finally the Stark of Winterfell and Joramun of the wildlings had joined to free the Watch from bondage. After his fall, when it was found he had been sacrificing to the Others, all records of Night’s King had been destroyed, his very name forbidden.—A Storm of Swords, Bran IV
Now, some in the fandom have speculated that ‘sacrificing to the Others’ may, in fact, mean that the Night’s King and his corpse queen were creating the Others. For the purposes of this essay, that doesn’t really matter. Perhaps Night’s King made the first Others, perhaps he instead made more Others, perhaps neither. Yet regardless of if he made the Others or not, Night’s King seems to have wielded the Others as a weapon against other human beings.
…[O]ver the thousands of years of its existence as the chief seat of the Watch, the Nightfort has accrued many legends of its own, some of which have been recounted in Archmaester Harmune’s Watchers on the Wall. The oldest of these tales concern the legendary Night’s King, the thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, who was alleged to have bedded a sorceress pale as a corpse and declared himself a king. For thirteen years the Night’s King and his “corpse queen” ruled together, before King of Winter, Brandon the Breaker, (in alliance, it is said, with the King-Beyond-the-Wall, Joramun) brought them down. Thereafter, he obliterated the Night’s King’s very name from memory.—The World of Ice and Fire, The Wall and Beyond: The Night’s Watch
I try to stay away from Game of Thrones TV parallels—I think of them as different versions of the same story that may not have one-to-one correlations—but I can’t help but notice that the show has a character named “Night’s King” who leads the Others to fight against humanity. Now, the book context for the creation of Night’s King and his role in the current war will likely differ from the show, in my opinion. Nevertheless, Night’s King’s role in leading the Others to fight humanity in the original war for the dawn seems highly probable.
Right about now you might be thinking, “Woah, woah, woah, slow down, Gretchen! That’s a pretty big assumption about the Night’s King and the Others. Why tie the Others to Night’s King in the first place? According to the TV show, the Children of the Forest created the Others to protect the weirwoods from human beings. And didn’t the Night’s King rule after the long night, not during?”
Well, the television show may be right about both the Children of the Forest creating the Others—or at the very least helping to create the Others—and that a figure named the “Night’s King” mobilized them against humanity at some later point. (Or the show may be wrong, or at least not entirely right about the Children’s role; only time will tell what that means for the books.) As I just said, for the purposes of this essay, it doesn’t really matter who created the Others, only who weaponized them.
And we can’t deny that symbolic evidence within the books links the Others to the Night’s King and his corpse queen. The mobilization of the Others and their symbolic equivalents (e.g., the Kingsguard, the Warrior’s Sons, and sometimes the wildlings) repeatedly tie in both with Night’s King figures like Stannis, Euron, and, occasionally, Jon Snow, and with ice queens like Visenya, Val, or Lyanna.
There’s too much parallelism between the black shadow Night’s Watch brothers and the white shadow Kingsguard for it to be coincidence. These ‘brothers from an Other mother’ seem to be kin somehow, and whenever we see a defensive force mobilized for conquest or attack, the one who does so is all too human. So, while the Others almost definitely come from the trees, specifically the white/wight weirwoods, the ones who mobilized them into a force of conquest was probably human. Or, even more likely, someone who once was human and underwent some kind of death transformation. Just think of ‘walking corpse’ Stannis and Melisandre creating black shadow babies or soon-to-be-dead-and-resurrected Jon Snow letting the wildlings through the Wall with the help of ice queen Val.
Such events most likely took place during rather than after the Long Night. Where we see Other creation and mobilization symbolism, it’s during symbolic Long Night events like eclipses, dragons or clouds hiding the sun, or even the “Years of the Dragon’s Wroth,” the “black time” after the death of Rhaenys during which Visenya creates the Kingsguard to protect Aegon the Conqueror. Moreover, given we know of no mention of the Others prior to the Long Night and they do not seem to have had any significant presence in Westeros since, the Long Night and the Others seem inextricably linked together. We don’t know yet which causes which, but we do know that when the Long Night falls, the Others appear and when the Long Night ends, the Others fade away into the icy North. It makes little sense for the Night’s King to be sacrificing to beings that have no presence or power at the Wall, which leads me to conclude that the Night’s King events took place during the Long Night.
To sum up, if the Others are analogous to an elite defensive force like the Kingsguard, one may reasonably posit that someone must command them. Since we have other tales of Lord Commanders attempting to wield the Night’s Watch—an inverse parallel to the Others—as their own personal fighting force, why not the Night’s King doing the same with the Others? Perhaps “with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will” and “he had been sacrificing to the Others” is the same thing: turning Black brothers into Others under his control. Or it could be that using sorcery to control the Night’s Watch brothers is meant as an analogy for the Night’s King binding the Others to his will to use them as his personal army. Or he could very well have done both. We don’t know yet.
What this all boils down to is the proposal that the Others were at some point mobilized for a purpose beyond their original intention: these white shadow guardians of the wood became an attack force under the control of a leader who wished to use them differently than they’d been originally intended, and the person who did so was the Night’s King.
In the next part, I’m going to raise questions about what that purpose might have been, and here’s a hint, it may not have been out of ‘hatred for everything with hot blood in its veins’.