What Were the Others Defending and Why?

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Part II of Ice Preserves, Video Essay is available on YouTube

Hello and welcome to Moondancing with Dragons, a channel devoted to maidens, mythology, and maligned women in A Song of Ice and Fire.

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 can we know about what that original purpose might have been? And, what if they were mobilized not to destroy humanity, but to save it?

I am your host, Ba’al the Bard, and I’m bringing you part two of my exploration of the Others. This was originally meant to be a two-part series, but the more I started digging into things, the more I realized that the prelude to discussion what the Others are doing by attacking human beings belonged on its own. So in good George R. R. Martin fashion, I split one essay into two.  

So without further ado, Ice Preserves Part Two: What Were the Others Defending and Why?

Shadows From the Heart of the Wood

Last time I laid out my theory that the Others were created for one purpose and co-opted and weaponized for another. Looking at various symbolic parallels to the Others—the Kingsguard, Robb’s host in the battle of the Whispering Wood, the Faith Militant, and the Night’s Watch—it becomes clear that the Others seem to have originally been a defensive force of some kind. They weren’t initially created to attack and kill humanity. So if Old Nan is right (and she usually is), then at some point the Others didn’t “hate everything with hot blood in its veins.”

In order to figure out what their secondary purpose might have been—what the Night’s King took control of them for—it’s worth seeing if we can put some pieces together for why they were created as a defensive force in the first place. And to do that, we need to take a look at where they come from: the trees. More specifically, the weirwoods.

This came up briefly last time with the quote from the A Game of Thrones prologue and Cat’s Whispering Wood chapter, so it’s worth repeating them here.

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.—A Game of Thrones, Prologue

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

In these two quotes, we see that Others and their symbolic parallels emerge from the trees. Something similar happens in Fire and Blood with the Faith Militant resisting being abolished by Maegor.

It must not be thought that the reconciliation of the lords brought peace to Westeros overnight. King Maegor’s efforts to exterminate the Poor Fellows and the Warrior’s Sons had set many pious men and women against him, and against House Targaryen. Whilst he had collected the heads of hundreds of Stars and Swords, hundreds more remained at large and tens of thousands of lesser lords, landed knights, and smallfolk sheltered them, fed them, and gave them aid and comfort wherever they could. Ragged Silas and Dennis the Lame commanded roving bands of Poor Fellows who came and went like wraiths, vanishing into the greenwood whenever threatened.—Fire and Blood, Prince into King

Like the Others who emerge from the trees, the ‘wraith’-like Poor Fellows vanish into them, melting into the green, as Cat so poetically put it. Note also that when Sam gets attacked by the Other in A Storm of Swords, it’s when he is in the woods and “the trees were all about them.”

As some of you may have noticed, not one of these quotes mention the weirwoods. So why do I think they come specifically from the weirwoods? For one thing, they share a lot of symbolism. Both the Others and the Kingsguard, a symbolic equivalent to Others, are called ‘pale’ or ‘white’ shadows (check out Lucifer Mean’s Lightbringer’s essay “Dawn of the Others” if you want more Kingsguard/Other parallels), and there’s a cluster of imagery often associated with both that includes moonlight, milkglass, bone, and frozen water. If it’s white and/or frozen, it’s probably been used to describe Others and the weirwoods.

For example, the Others are armored in ice and weirwoods can be encased in ice, the most vivid being in the Varamyr Sixskins prologue from A Dance with Dragons,

When they reached the crest the wolves paused. Thistle, he remembered, and a part of him grieved for what he had lost and another part for what he’d done. Below, the world had turned to ice. Fingers of frost crept slowly up the weirwood, reaching out for each other. The empty village was no longer empty. Blue-eyed shadows walked amongst the mounds of snow. Some wore brown and some wore black and some were naked, their flesh gone white as snow. A wind was sighing through the hills, heavy with their scents: dead flesh, dry blood, skins that stank of mold and rot and urine. Sly gave a growl and bared her teeth, her ruff bristling. Not men. Not prey. Not these.

The things below moved, but did not live. One by one, they raised their heads toward the three wolves on the hill. The last to look was the thing that had been Thistle. She wore wool and fur and leather, and over that she wore a coat of hoarfrost that crackled when she moved and glistened in the moonlight. Pale pink icicles hung from her fingertips, ten long knives of frozen blood. And in the pits where her eyes had been, a pale blue light was flickering, lending her coarse features an eerie beauty they had never known in life.—A Dance with Dragons, Prologue

Note how Thistle in her coat of hoarfrost (like a coat of armor) shares imagery with the nearby weirwood, whose bark is also being enclosed in a layer of frost. Thistle is a wight, so not exactly an Other, but she has the starry blue eyes and icy armor of an Other, so she’s doing a very good impression of one.

If you like wordplay as much as I do, check out this quote from A Storm of Swords,

Thirty-five hundred riders wound their way along the valley floor through the heart of the Whispering Wood, but Catelyn Stark had seldom felt lonelier.—A Storm of Swords, Catelyn V

The Whispering Wood is where the riders melted into the green and then emerged from the trees looking like Others with their lances wreathed in silver flame. And here we are, back in the very same wood, and with Catelyn again no less, and the riders are traveling through “the heart of the Whispering Wood.” You know what other trees have hearts? The weirwoods at the center of the godswoods, aka the heart trees. Just ask Theon,

And in the heart of the wood the weirwood waited with its knowing red eyes.—A Dance with Dragons, A Ghost in Winterfell

The heart of the woods is the heart tree, the weirwood, and that’s where we find the Others or their symbolic parallels.

So, Others come from the trees and seem to be connected to the weirwoods, or more specifically, to frozen weirwoods (stay tuned for more on this from an upcoming collaboration with Questing Beast and other myth head ladies). Cool. What does that tell us? To my mind, the best explanation is that the Others were originally some kind of defensive spirit or golem created to protect the weirwoods.

Freezing the Burning Tree

At this point, it’s not necessary to determine, what or who the Others were protecting—though I do have thoughts about that and I may come back and revisit it in another video. For now let’s accept the premise that the Others were protecting something, either the weirwoods themselves or someone inhabiting them. The question then becomes: protecting them from what?

Most everyone has probably heard of Newton’s third law of motion, though perhaps not by name. It’s the statement that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. To figure out the ‘action’ that caused the creation of Others, let’s take a closer look at the ‘reaction’, the Others themselves.

When he opened his eyes the Other’s armor was running down its legs in rivulets as pale blue blood hissed and steamed around the black dragonglass dagger in its throat. It reached down with two bone-white hands to pull out the knife, but where its fingers touched the obsidian they smoked.

Sam rolled onto his side, eyes wide as the Other shrank and puddled, dissolving away. In twenty heartbeats its flesh was gone, swirling away in a fine white mist. Beneath were bones like milkglass, pale and shiny, and they were melting too. Finally only the dragonglass dagger remained, wreathed in steam as if it were alive and sweating.—A Storm of Swords, Samwell I

Not only is their armor made of ice (recall Jon’s armor of black ice in his Night King dream in A Dance with Dragons Jon XII), the Others seem to be physically made entirely of ice. Their blue blood steams, their skin puddles and dissolves into white mist, and even their bones melt. Recall that their swords are cold enough to shatter steel in the A Game of Thrones prologue and that they either bring or arrive soon after the appearance of freezing mists.

A man can fight the dead, but when their masters come, when the white mists rise up … how do you fight a mist, crow? Shadows with teeth … air so cold it hurts to breathe, like a knife inside your chest … you do not know, you cannot know … can your sword cut cold?—A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII

In other words, the Others warriors made of ice wielding icy swords who inhabit icy mists.

So that’s the reaction, what does that tell us about the action that preceded them, the stimulus that created this extreme response? It doesn’t take a genius to guess that the stimulus was fire. This book series is called a song of ice and fire after all. And that brings us to the more common depiction of weirwoods as a burning tree.

George RR Martin scatters burning trees all over the books, novellas, and histories. We have Wat’s Wood burning in “The Sworn Sword,” the burning of the woods in the Riverlands, the burning-tree sigil of the Marbrands, the burning of the weirwood and the Seven on Dragonstone—who are made of wood and therefore symbolic trees—and we hear about the burning of the weirwoods in the south by the Andals all the way back in A Game of Thrones. Melisandre orders the Wildlings to burn of weirwood branches at the Wall to prove their fealty.

R’hllor was a jealous deity, ever hungry. So the new god devoured the corpse of the old, and cast gigantic shadows of Stannis and Melisandre upon the Wall, black against the ruddy red reflections on the ice.—A Dance with Dragons, Jon III

In A Clash of Kings, Theon describes the leaves of the weirwood as a “blaze of flame”—making the weirwood quite symbolically a white tree with a fiery canopy.

Symbolically, the burning tree seems to be connected to greenseers, which has been discussed at length elsewhere by the one and only Lucifer Means Lightbringer, so I’ll summarize the implications for you here. When a greenseer joins the weirwoods, it’s called ‘wedding the tree’ and the very first human greenseer may have been none other than Azor Ahai himself, who seems to have had some connection to dragons as well. He’s a dragon-type person who ‘sets the tree on fire’ when he ‘steals the fire of the gods’ by joining himself to the weirwood tree (likely using some kind of blood magic).  

Sounds like a lot to digest, but to make it a bit more clear, let’s return to the quote from Fire and Blood about the Faith Militant.

It must not be thought that the reconciliation of the lords brought peace to Westeros overnight. King Maegor’s efforts to exterminate the Poor Fellows and the Warrior’s Sons had set many pious men and women against him, and against House Targaryen. Whilst he had collected the heads of hundreds of Stars and Swords, hundreds more remained at large and tens of thousands of lesser lords, landed, knights, and smallfolk sheltered them, fed them, and gave them aid and comfort wherever they could. Ragged Silas and Dennis the Lame commanded roving bands of Poor Fellows who came and went like wraiths, vanishing into the greenwood whenever threatened.—Fire and Blood, Prince into King

That’s blood of the dragon Maegor Targaryen trying to exterminate the wraith-like Faith Militant and them vanishing into the woods like Others. In fact, the Faith of the Seven resisted the Targaryen invasion of Westeros longer than any of the geographic kingdoms. They were the Targaryens staunchest opponents, that is until Jaehaerys and Alysanne began their propaganda machine, but that’s another story.

Recall also that the North has historically staunchly resisted the incursions of Targaryens into their territory. Only a handful of Targaryens have ever made it to Winterfell, much less any further North. Typically, the icy Starks prefer to go south rather than let the dragonfolk come North. Just ask Torrhen Stark who knelt to Aegon below the Neck, Cregan Stark who came south during the Dance rather than wait for the battles to come north, and Ned during Robert’s Rebellion. Whenever the dragons bend their eye northwards, the North tries its best to resist it. Alaric Stark was famously frosty with Queen Alysanne upon initial acquaintance (though she ‘thawed’ him over time). Alysanne’s dragons either cannot or refuse to pass the Wall, a structure made entirely of ice. When fire moves north across Westeros, ice rises to meet it and prevent its passage. Symbolically of course, using Starks and Targaryens as representations of ice and fire as we know is done throughout the series.

And there seems to be a reason it has to be ice. If you’ll bear with a minor aside into Essos and The World of Ice and Fire, we’ll see that water isn’t enough to stop the literal dragons and their riders.

And the dragons came. Not three, as Prince Garin had faced at Volon Therys, but three hundred or more, if the tales that have come down to us can be believed. Against their fires, the Rhoynar could not stand. Tens of thousands burned whilst others rushed into the river, hoping that the embrace of Mother Rhoyne would offer them protection against dragonflame…only to drown in their mother’s embrace. Some chroniclers insist that the fires burned so hot that the very waters of the river boiled and turned to steam.—The World of Ice and Fire, Ancient History: Ten Thousand Ships

The first thing we notice is that the waters boiling and turning to steam reminds us of Sam plunging the dragonglass dagger into the Other and its flesh and bone turning to steam. Second, we notice that even the plentiful waters of the Rhoyne and the water magic wielding Rhoynar could not defeat the intense heat of dragonflame. Like wildfire, dragonfire burns with such intensity that it can melt stone. Water can’t put it out. But maybe, ice could freeze it.

Way up in northern Essos is a body of water called the Shivering Sea. Here there be freezing mists and perhaps ice dragons, if the rumors are to be believed. Ice dragons breathe cold instead of flame, “a chill so terrible that it can freeze a man solid in half a heartbeat.” Now whether or not these dragons that melt when you kill them exist, they do sound a lot like the Others with the freezing mists and melting when slain.

Bringing this back to Westeros, we see that Martin seems to be playing with the idea that you don’t fight fire with fire, you fight it with ice. When the fires burn so hot they can melt the very ground, you can’t put that out with water, you have to freeze it.

If Lucifer Means Lightbringer is correct that “setting the tree on fire” is a metaphor for the first human greenseer invading the weirwoods, then it makes sense that the tree would react by trying to ‘freeze’ the invader, to halt his advance any further—just like the Starks trying to prevent the Targaryens from gaining a foothold in the north, or the Clans of the Mountains of the Moon (more symbolic Others) resist anyone trying to invade the Vale.

It’s outlined pretty clearly in the Varamyr Sixskins prologue we looked at earlier, though in true Martin fashion, there’s a mixture of symbolism, metaphor, and literal human action. First, Varamyr tries to body snatch Thistle. There’s a lot going on there, but we’ll leave that for now. After he body snatches her, Varamyr briefly ends up in the nearby weirwood,

The white world turned and fell away. For a moment it was as if he were inside the weirwood, gazing out through carved red eyes as a dying man twitched feebly on the ground and a madwoman danced blind and bloody underneath the moon, weeping red tears and ripping at her clothes. Then both were gone and he was rising, melting, his spirit borne on some cold wind.—A Dance with Dragons, Prologue

The cold wind takes him away, where he eventually finds his pack. After this, Thistle and the weirwood freeze over and the Others arrive to turn all the dead Wildlings into wights. So, Varamyr, a naughty greenseer and warg who practices abominations invades a weirwood, then that weirwood freezes over and the Others emerge.

That is where I think the Others come from: they were a defensive reaction to the fiery invasion of a dragonblooded greenseer person into the weirwoods. I think this person was Azor Ahai, but that’s not even entirely necessary. All that really matters is that this is the first human greenseer who barged his way into a place he didn’t belong, bringing symbolic (and perhaps literal) fire with him and the weirwoods tried to defend themselves with ice.

So where does that leave us? If the original purpose of the Others was to defend against the invasion of the weirwoods by human greenseers, how did they get to the point where they were attempting to destroy all of humanity? Could it be that they weren’t actually trying to destroy humanity? You’ll have to wait for my next essay to find out.

In the meantime, what do you think about the Others as defenders of the weirwoods against invading human greenseers? Let me know in the comments below.

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.


Featured image is “Marshlands at Sundown” by Alice Pike Barney