The Night’s King

The oldest of these tales [about the Night’s Watch] 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. (tWoIaF – The Wall and Beyond: The Night’s Watch)

Introduction

In The Plutonian Others I made a proposal regarding the nature of the Others: their chemical make-up and how that makes sunlight their enemy, that their blue blood bonds with copper instead of iron like it does with spiders. Ultimately I propose that they are the hive minded ice spiders of the past, who transformed over time to mimic a human appearance much like Sandkings do after Simon Kress.

I started that essay of 2019 with the legend of the Night’s King to show there is no Night King in the books as there was in the GOT show, and thus the Others had another origin and nature. I will revisit the legend of the Night’s King here as well, and analyse the two main characters of it – the thirteenth Lord Commander and his Corpse Queen – as well as do away with some of the common reader misconceptions about this legend imho.

Ever since the Night’s King legend was published in aSoS, readers have speculated first whether the Night’s King was still in existence, Otherized, to lead the Others. The proponents of that hypothesis felt vindicated by the HBO show. But George always stressed in interviews that the Night’s King in the books is but a historical figure, long dead. Not until the final season of the show, when it became clear that one controlling Otherized Night King would lead to an anticlimactic result once killed, did this hypothesis lose fervor. Most readers nowadays do accept there is no similar NK figure as in the show.

Instead, variations of another hypothesis took its place – someone in the current timeline would become a new current Night’s King: Stannis, Euron or Jon Snow. All of these usually end up as an undead wight or Otherized, sound of mind like Coldhands, whom the Others seek to be their new leader. Some go even further and propose that Jon Snow’s soul is the reborn soul of the legendary Night’s King. I disagree with these proposals on almost every point for various reasons. Unfortunately the arguments regarding proposed candidates for a current timeline Night’s King rely on several misconceptions: both on the Night’s King of the far past as well as a failure to make a proper literary analysis on both the legend and his parallels.

The three common main mistakes these NK theories and proposals make imo are:

  • conflation of the timeline: either it is outright argued or somehow subconsciously assumed that the NK legend occurred during the Long Night. The argument that there needs to be a current Night’s King to lead the Others is intrinsically based on this conflation. But all outright claims about both legends, the location where this happened, and circumstantial evidence point to the Night’s King events having occurred several centuries after the Long Night. And since the Others did the most damage during the Long Night, centuries before there even was a Night’s King, they clearly have no need whatsoever for some Night’s King to “lead” them.
  • the Night’s King was Otherized: Unfortunately, readers are still in some way riveted by the idea of a character being “turned” into a show-like Night King, despite there not even being evidence that the historical Night’s King was ever Otherized. Its roots lie in the mystery on who or what are the Others and how are they “born” or “created”. The popular theory for decades has been that they were humans who were magically turned into icy murderous beings, and that was what happened to Craster’s sons, which ended up being used by D&D, still serving as further reinforcement. But popular does not mean good or correct. Aside from the evidence to the contrary I mentioned in my essay The Plutonian Others, the idea is highly problematic, because it leads to a rabbit hole of more questions than answers. Not to mention how that Otherized Night’s King idea is tied to the “leader of the Others” argument (see above)
  • that there must be one correct true Night’s King reborn. While most readers who propose theories regarding the Night’s King acknowledge that Craster, Stannis and Euron Greyjoy all have features in their arcs that fit the legendary Night’s King, they either dismiss them ultimately to propose a fourth one (most often Jon) or argue for one of these three to be the real Night’s King reborn, and the other two as foils. Upon close inspection all three characters match in some ways with the legend, while they are also problematic, hence a fourth is proposed. Meanwhile the proponents of Jon becoming the true Night’s King, completely ignore how Jon consistently opts out whenever he is offered the choice to enter into a Night’s King scenario. More, this idea of a one true current-timeline Night’s King ignores the fact that we have basically two different (even opposing) accounts of the Night’s King legend, and both versions would include the narrator’s lies and misunderstandings. How can we then determine which one is the true Night’s King reborn? Well, maybe the answer is that there will not be a one true Night’s King reborn at all.

When George gave us two conflicting sources about the legend, where each version has a kernel of truth as well as errors, then George never wrote them to serve as a predictive roadmap to a Night’s King reborn. Instead the legend is yet another mystery that needs to be unpacked and solved. In literature, an author can help the reader solve the riddle of the past in several ways:

  • actually show us the past
  • having one character re-enact the past in the current timeline
  • having several characters take up parts of the gauntlet.

Bran’s abilities and POV can potentially reveal what actually happened. Hence, George does not need a Night’s King reborn. The problem is that George is not the type of author to use greenseeing in such an unambiguous way. It is highly unlikely we will see the whole story about the Night’s King from start to end via Bran. I will show though that he has used Craster and Stannis (well Melisandre really) to re-enact parts of what really happened, even before George introduced the Night’s King legend, and is setting up Euron to do the same. In a way, one version of the Night’s King legend was written to reveal to us how Craster aided the Others, and how Melisandre was written to be a reverse-parallel to the most crucial missing piece of the Others’ puzzle – the Night’s Queen. The Night’s King legends were written to match with Melisandre, so that through both we would become aware of the Night’s Queen as an entity, both in the past as well as the present. And based on the chapter of tWoW that George read during a convention involving Euron, he will mostly give us answers about enslaving people’s minds. Once we have these three as puzzle pieces about the Others, the Night’s Queen and the legend, then one vision by Bran is enough to seal the answers.

Two accounts on the legendary Night’s King

We have only two stories in the collection of books on the Night’s King. The World Book mentions him (the introductory quote I used for this essay). And then Bran remembers Old Nan’s story about him when he stays the night at the Nightfort.

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. (aSoS, Bran IV)

The two accounts agree on some details but contradict one another in others. They agree that

  • the Night’s King was the thirteenth commander of the Night’s Watch,
  • he declared himself king,
  • a “pale woman” was involved and became his queen,
  • Joramun and a Stark of Winterfell took him down,
  • his name was obliterated.

Beyond that they both mention or suggest intercourse between the NK and his queen. But where Old Nan claims it with certainty in euphemistic terms, maester Yandel cautions the reader into believing this happened with the word “alleged”.

The two sources contradict one another on two issues:

  • the nature of the queen: Old Nan describes (unwittingly) a female Other, whereas maester Yandel leaves out any such inhumane description and pushes for the queen to have been a human.
  • identifying which of the two was the sorcerer: maester Yandel refers to the corpse queen as a sorceress, while Old Nan’s version makes the NK to be the one binding the brothers of the Night’s Watch to his will.

In other words, before George wrote Fire & Blood as an exercise of the unreliability of historical sources, he already did so with first introducing us to Old Nan’s tale of the Night’s King and then giving us the Citadel’s take via the World Book. When historical sources agree with one another that is an argument to regard these as the bare bone truth: the Night’s King was the thirteenth commander of the Night’s Watch who proclaimed himself king and a female being his queen, while Joramun the first King-Beyond-the-Wall and the Stark of Winterfell took him down and obliterated his name.

It is on the details where the versions begin to divert or disagree that we need to be most careful.

  • Did they truly sleep with one another, or was this mere speculation to make sense of the relation?
  • The answer to the above is tied to the nature of the queen. If she was an Other, then bedding her would have been impossible. It could only be true if she was human.
  • Who was the sorcerer and doing the mind bending?

To assess the answers to these questions it is important to keep in mind what the strengths and weaknesses are of both historical sources as well as recognize that unlike with Fire & Blood, in aSoIaF we readers are in some way primary witnesses through the POVs of various characters and therefore have more information than both maester Yandel and Old Nan have regarding characters doing similar things like the Night’s King.

The World Book is not exactly a factual background history for asoiaf that you can take at face value. It is an in world written history by maester Yandel, whose own agenda is to downplay anything magical. So, what you tend to see is that while he will cite and retell seemingly outlandish claims if you live in a rational world without magic, he will then opine to dismiss this, put shade on it as a fairytale and propose explanations or candidates that would fit for a non magical world. But we have knowledge that magic does exist on Planetos. We can therefore dismiss his opinions and speculations in certain instances, when we have another source with conflicting information.

In contrast to maester Yandel’s cleaned up accounts, Old Nan’s folktales include colorful details. If maester Yandel would hear those, he would dismiss them out of hand. But we readers who have “witnessed” such creatures or events occur in a POV can recognize them to be quite accurate. However, we must also recognize that Old Nan has not been a primary witness to the events that occurred in the legends. She is relaying a hearsay of histories that were often indeed fancied up by singers. For example, Jon explicitly concludes Old Nan had no idea what she was talking about when she described giants. The giants he observes and meets are nothing like Old Nan claimed, not even in looks. She and the storytellers before her were often prejudiced and unknowing about the workings of magic and skinchanging. So, why they blame for sorcery or what they suspected to have occurred between individuals where one is a sorcerer are conjecture.

So, in a most general way, we must keep in mind with both sources: maester Yandel does not believe magic exists whatsoever, while Old Nan believes almost any and every magic is evil and not that knowledgeable on it.

Index

In this series of essays I will cover the evidence against those three common mistakes, and throughout I will regularly point out the inconsistencies of both legend versions as well how we can use current events to figure out what is the truth behind those legends, using those characters that are most often associated with the Night’s King. Most of these have been written, but I decided to split them all, and they might need some rearranging.

  • Timeline Stuff: first we cover the timeline stuff, to map out the Long Night and Night’s King as well as the legends of the last hero and Brandon the Builder. This puts the conflation of both different events to rest.
  • What use is a Night’s King: here I cover what role the Night’s King played or served for the Others, based on what we can filter from the more elaborate Old Nan version of the legend, as well as from the storylines and arcs from current timeline characters such as Craster, Melisandre and Euron.
  • From Sandkings to Nightkings: in this essay I will explicitly cover one of George’s older horror sci-fi stories of his 1000 worlds The Sandkings, the relevant references we have within the books, including Night’s Kingy characters and how this story can be a basis to understand some of the mysteries about the Others, the corpse queen but also the Undying, and the Thing that came in the night.
  • Current Night’s Kings and Queens: Though Craster, Melisandre, Stannis and Euron will have been covered extensively in the prior two essays, here I will extend our understanding to their arc and what type of predictions we can make for thim.
  • Not Jon: finally I cover the multiple moments where Jon is put to Night’s Kingy choices throughout his arc but each time declines.

2 thoughts on “The Night’s King”

    1. Exactly! That’s the point. He’s put to the test, again and again and again. So often I see people refer to scenes that do have Night’s King, and Long Night, and winter references that involve Jon Snow to argue he will be the Night’s King reborn or come again. But when he has a choice or a chance to evade it, he will decline or avoid it. This is never taken into account. And any of the predicted disasters that will happen at the Wall will occur while he’s either in a coma or dead. The Night’s King was a man who knowingly and voluntarily and with full free choice betrayed humanity: if a man is tested and declines, if he’s forced to under threat of a sword, if he’s magically compelled to by a spell, and if somebody else abuses an opportunity that he unwittingly created then he is no Night’s King.

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