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Game of Thrones White Walkers, Wights, and Others, Explained


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He ded. Like, so dead. Did you see season 5 episode 8 yet?

Yes.  I was shattered.

Like you were hit with Valyrian steel and Dragonglass.

1. Who are the White Walkers?

The Others — known as the White Walkers on the TV show, because without the ability to convey capital letters in speech, the creators thought it would be confusing — are a race of human-shaped beings who are extremely difficult to kill, possess superhuman powers, and appear to be extremely hostile toward humans. During the time portrayed in the books so far they are living exclusively north of the Wall.

They appear in the very first scene of both the book series and the show, attacking a small group of Night's Watch rangers, and based on what Mance Rayder says, they have been active for at least a little while prior to the opening of the story.

But until very recently, they had not been seen or heard from in a very long time. So long that the conventional wisdom in at least some circles in the Seven Kingdoms is that they never existed at all. Legends that circulate in Westeros, however, speak of a race that seems to have been the Others and was a major adversary of humankind thousands of years ago.

The Others are closely associated with, but different from, wights — reanimated corpses of people or animals killed by Others.

2. What do we know for sure about White Walkers and wights?

Leaving old myths and legends out of it, we really don't know all that much. But here are the basic bullet points:

  • White Walkers aren't harmed by conventional weapons, but they are vulnerable to both obsidian (also known as dragonglass) and Valyrian steel (also known as dragonsteel)
  • White Walkers can reanimate corpses (exactly how they do so is unclear) to create undead wights
  • White Walkers have a spoken language, called Skroth — wights do not speak, as far as we know
  • Craster offered up his baby sons to the White Walkers as a sacrifice
  • Wights' eyes turn bright blue
  • Wights can be harmed with conventional weapons, but they feel no pain; chop off a wight's arm, and it'll keep coming at you
  • Burning wights is one highly effective way of countering them 
  • Burning corpses is a useful prophylactic against reanimation by the White Walkers
  • Both human and animal corpses can be reanimated as wights

There is also circumstantial evidence — at least on the TV show — that perhaps neither the White Walkers nor wights can swim. During the big battle at Hardhome, they make no attempt to attack Jon's fleet or to pursue the refugees in small boats making their way to the ships. What's more, the Wall would not make much sense as a defense against the White Walkers if they were able to simply bypass it by swimming through a small portion of the Bay of Ice or the Bay of Seals.

map bay of ice bay of seals castle black the wall game of thrones

Tower of the Hand

Finally, in A Dance With Dragons Bran recounts that "the monsters cannot pass so long as the Wall stands and the men of the Night's Watch stay true." At least "that's what Old Nan [an elderly servant at Winterfell] used to say." It's not clear that Nan's testimony on this point is credible, but it's at least possible that the Wall possesses some kind of magic that prevents the Others from scaling or bypassing it.

4. Who is the Night's King?

On the show, there is a particular White Walker with a horned crown who is identified in supplementary material (though not yet on the show) as the Night's King.

In the books, the Night's King is a semi-legendary historical figure. He is said to have been the 13th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. He fell in love with a woman "with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars" whose "skin was cold as ice" — i.e., presumably one of the Others. He set himself up at the now-abandoned Nightfort along the Wall and ruled for years, allegedly committing atrocities that are still spoken of generations later, until he was taken down by an alliance between House Stark and a wildling king.

It's not at all clear whether the character on the show is the same as this legendary figure from the books — after all, one is a White Walker and one was a human — but the connection is certainly suggested.

6. Why is Westeros so complacent about the White Walker threat?

The legends say the Others have not been seen for about 8,000 years. For context, the earliest surviving specimens of Sumerian writing are less than 5,000 years old. Consequently, sensible people of Westeros — and not just villains — do not believe they exist.

In the first book, Ned Stark tells his wife that "the Others are as dead as the Children of the Forest, gone eight thousand years. Maester Luwin will tell you they never lived at all."

In other words, the conventional wisdom in the North among people who identify with the First Men, support the Night's Watch, and worship the Old Gods is that there are no Others anymore. But among educated, sophisticated people like Maester Luwin, the conventional wisdom is that they never existed at all. The exception to this rule is Stannis Baratheon, whose relationship with the Red Priestess Melisandre and the legend of Azor Ahai leads him to take warnings from the Night's Watch more seriously.

9. What do the White Walkers want? Why are they back?

The basic plot schematics seem designed to lead to the assumption that the Others want to conquer all of humanity and destroy the world, as befits the villain of a fantasy epic. However, Martin has said that "the idea of the Dark Lord and his Evil Minions ... has not served the genre well" and "ultimately the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart and not necessarily between an army of people dressed in white and an army of people dressed in black."

There is a lot of evidence of that worldview in Martin's treatment of plots far away from the Wall, where the tangled political machinations in King's Landing and Meereen don't offer black-and-white narratives, but the Others do seem like a clear case of Dark Lord and Evil Minions.

Yet it's noteworthy that the Others have never been seen south of the Wall. And outside of their possible inability to swim explaining their failure to attack the ships at Hardhome, maybe they simply chose not to attack. Perhaps, from their point of view, they are not evil conquerors at all but a put-upon minority (maybe they are actually the Children of the Forest) simply defending their territory against human aggression. It's at least conceivable that the whole conflict is a result of an enormous misunderstanding of some kind.

Cool.

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.” 

Maybe the Night's King had a good reason not to kill them all right now?

Maybe when he saw Jon Snow kill one of the major White Walkers he decided to wait?

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