This essay will focus on Craster and his wives, Gilly in particular, in terms of the elements that fit the patterns, functions and abilities insofar they match with the Night’s King as well as the corpse queen. While most readers will recognize up to a level that Craster has a partial Night’s King role, his wives will hardly ever be recognized as a parallel to a corpse queen.
However, Gilly most certainly is repeatedly featured and cast in a corpse queen role by George in all the right locations: north of the Wall in an enchanted frosted forest, the Nightfort’s kitchens and the Wall’s lichyard. This was an obvious parallel to the corpse queen to pick up on, but almost so on the nose for a girl we have sympathy for that it is easily glossed over. She may be no sorceress or hivemind, but Gilly is a mother, leaking milk that she shares with adult men. This is very much a Sandking maw feature.
Maw references are not solely restricted to Gilly alone. We also find them for other wives of Craster in the short moments that they are featured. And in an unexpected way, we come to the realization that George uses incest amongst humans to mimic an inhuman lifeform’s ability to perform autogamy or parthogenesis.
A follow-up essay is in the making, where I will go deeper into his legacy – sweet little monster.
I have covered most about Craster already in What Use is a Night’s King and From Sandkings to Nightqueen. And I have covered him extensively as well in Craster’s Black Blooded Curse in the Bears & Maiden section. So, this section of the essay will be mostly a summary.
Taking the most superficial view, Craster seems nothing like a Night’s King. He commands no army. His rule goes no further than the pigsty home he built on shit (according to Dolourous Edd). He is neither king or lord commander. He is just a wildling, shunned by everybody else living north of the Wall. He has no queen, but nineteen wives, most of whom are his daughters. Not a one is a sorceress. Not a one is an infamous, bedazzling beauty. And he certainly is no magician.
His ambitions go no further than to continue his incest without caring one iota about any of his children, be serviced by the girls and women, drink, fuck and snore. He pales in comparison to the legend about the Bloodstone Emperor, the Night’s King and Euron. Aside from the incest and leaving his sons in the forest to die, we do not know if he ever harmed another wildling or brother of the Night’s Watch directly. But he might have killed Othor with an axe as I proposed in Craster’s Black Blooded Curse and turn wights into blood sausages for his secret larder. Joe Magician once argumented he might have directed Waymar Royce into a trap for the Others (see Joe Magician’s theories on The Killing of the Wrong Ranger).. The problem though is that it is very unlikely we will ever see any confirmation to these speculations.
He sure is a despicable man, but he does not have that eldritch terror characterization. Oh, and he is dead already, killed basically in what amounts to a barfight. He is the trailer-trash version of the Blood Emperor. Personally, I actually like it that George made such an impactful villain such a nobody. No songs will be sung about him in a thousand years; no tales told, not even by parents warning their children “if you don’t behave, Craster will come and get you.” Even less than a year after his death, he is almost forgotten, with almost nobody knowing how instrumental he was in empowering the Others in numbers and the maw in power. Exactly like the historical Night’s King, his name will be obliterated and for the exact same reason – human sacrifice.
Despite being a nobody, Craster is the one guy who managed to enlarge the numbers of the Others right under the nose of the Night’s Watch, who knew partially what he was doing, and yet the Night’s Watch never realized the significance of it. Even after Jeor Mormont was almost assassinated by a wight and numerous rangers have gone missing (including first ranger Benjen Stark), no one but Jon Snow and Dolorous Edd ever consider that it may be better to not deal with Craster at all. They still have their priorities on its head: to seek out Mance Rayder and destroy his host. It has to be said that at least Brandon the Breaker and Joramun obliterated the Night’s King’s name over discovering something similar. Mance and Jeor Mormont did not even do that. They knew he committed infanticide and they left him to it, or traded with him.
Without Craster, Waymar Royce may still be alive. Benjen Stark would have returned from his ranging. The Night’s Watch would not have lost close to 300 brothers at the Fist. Jeor Mormont most likely would still be alive. And the Free Folk would not have the need to follow Mance Rayder as King-Beyond-the-Wall. Stannis would not have sailed for Eastwatch. A large part of the plot would just not exist without Craster’s offerings of sons to the Others. Singers may never sing about his downfall. Nannies may never tell scary hearth about him. But the impact he has on Westeros, even after his death, is still ongoing, and widening, until it will engulf everyone manoeuvring for power in every region of the Seven Kingdoms.
So, Craster’s Night’s King action to sacrifice his seed to the Others is significant. And nobody of the other characters with a Night’s King arc will end up sacrificing their seed to the Others, not Euron, not Stannis and certainly not some of readers’ favourite character to villainize, Jon Snow. The rise of the Others is Craster’s fault.
And it gives us enough incentive to look at some things about Craster slightly closer.
Craster is in general not regarded as some type of king, but Chett considers Craster as living like a lord at his shitty “keep”, and considers living the same way, while calling himself king. Meanwhile Craster refers to himself as godly. He might not only mean that he stays on the good side of his gods, but may be implying he thinks of himself as a god.
There are hints that Craster may have helped to kill or led rangers towards the Others. Except for Gared all of these became wights. In that way Craster would have then be involved in binding brothers of the Night’s watch to the hivemind of the corpse queen maw.
Equally there are hints on cannibalism, and that Craster’s larder may be filled with sausages made out of wight blood. (see Craster’s Black Blooded Curse). Cannibalism is not necessarily linked to the Night’s King, but it certainly is for the Bloodstone Emperor who is the Night’s King-like character in the empire of Yi TI to a tiger (spider?) woman.
All of these elements may pale in comparison to the Lovecraftian evil that the legend of the Bloodstone Emperor, Euron or the Night’s King evokes in us, but he is still the sole man who is responsible for the Others even being a current threat.
Wife, Mother, Sister and Daughter
One of the most glaring discrepancies between Craster and the historical Night’s King is the fact that he has 19 wives, most of them his own daughters, and none of them are infamous haunting beauties as is said of the corpse queen. And yet, when we scratch of the surface and look deeper into scenes that feature Gilly, we actually discover that Craster’s human non-sorceress wives and daughters do serve as parallels to the corpse queen.
Gilly as corpse queen
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Gilly, he called me. For the gillyflower.”
“That’s pretty.” He remembered Sansa telling him once that he should say that whenever a lady told him her name. He could not help the girl, but perhaps the courtesy would please her. (aCoK, Jon III)
One often cited scene to argue Jon Snow will become the next Night’s King is the one where Jon meet with Gilly after he woke into a bedazzling winter scene on the grounds of Craster’s Keep.
He woke to the sight of his own breath misting in the cold morning air. When he moved, his bones ached. Ghost was gone, the fire burnt out. Jon reached to pull aside the cloak he’d hung over the rock, and found it stiff and frozen. He crept beneath it and stood up in a forest turned to crystal. The pale pink light of dawn sparkled on branch and leaf and stone. Every blade of grass was carved from emerald, every drip of water turned to diamond. Flowers and mushrooms alike wore coats of glass. Even the mud puddles had a bright brown sheen. Through the shimmering greenery, the black tents of his brothers were encased in a fine glaze of ice. So there is magic beyond the Wall after all. He found himself thinking of his sisters, perhaps because he’d dreamed of them last night. Sansa would call this an enchantment, and tears would fill her eyes at the wonder of it, but Arya would run out laughing and shouting, wanting to touch it all. (aCoK, Jon III)
Jon wakes into a “magical” iced winter world, and considers it an “enchantment”. Even though the frosting effect is natural, George pushes the reader to consider this as a scene where Jon woke up in a fairyland and is about to meet with a sorceress. And indeed, a young woman approaches him.
“Lord Snow?” he heard. Soft and meek. He turned. Crouched atop the rock that had sheltered him during the night was the rabbit keeper, wrapped in a black cloak so large it drowned her. Sam’s cloak, Jon realized at once. Why is she wearing Sam’s cloak? “The fat one told me I’d find you here, m’lord,” she said. […] Her arms closed over the swell of her belly. “Is it true, m’lord? Are you brother to a king?”
“A half brother,” he admitted. “I’m Ned Stark’s bastard. My brother Robb is the King in the North. Why are you here?”
By asking about Jon’s brother being a king, a Stark King, the scene is supposed to bring the Night’s King to mind, of whom it is sometimes claimed that he was a brother of the King of Winter, Brandon the Breaker Stark. And of course Jon Snow ends up becoming the Lord Commander, shortly after his return to the Wall.
Her breath frosted the air in small nervous puffs. “They say the king gives justice and protects the weak.” She started to climb off the rock, awkwardly, but the ice had made it slippery and her foot went out from under her. Jon caught her before she could fall, and helped her safely down. The woman knelt on the icy ground. “M’lord, I beg you—” […] “You don’t have to speak with me, m’lord. Just take me with you, when you go, that’s all I ask.” All she asks, he thought. As if that were nothing. “I’ll . . . I’ll be your wife, if you like. My father, he’s got nineteen now, one less won’t hurt him none.”(aCoK, Jon III)
We have a sentence that claims that the girl’s breath frosts the air, instead of the other way around. This evokes the idea of a woman cooling her surroundings, like an Other. And she begs him to take her with him, to be his wife. The complete scene appears a re-enactment of the legend of the Night’s King.
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. (aSoS, Bran IV)
The link between these two has been noticed for a long while already by many readers. I am not the first, nor will I be the last. Many readers also often propose that this is a foreshadowing scene or predictive scene that proves that Jon will end up being the Night’s King reborn. To this I disagree for the following reasons:
Jon does not wake in an enchanted forest of the future, but the past. Why do I say this? Jon wakes to the dawn! Which comes after the (long dark) night. This would be the same timing when the historical Night’s King met the corpse queen, after the Long Night, when the Wall was already built (see Timeline Stuff). It seems illogical that George would foreshadow that Jon will become the new Night’s King after the Others are defeated during the present story’s winter.
Since Jon wakes up in the past to a partial re-enactment of the corpse queen’s offer to the Night’s King, this is a test instead of a foreshadowing, which Jon passes with honors, since he refuses to take Gilly with him, let alone take her for his wife. Jon refuses to repeat the past.
Instead, I will point out that when readers focus on Jon for this scene, they gloss over the obvious casting of Gilly as a parallel to the corpse queen.
It is tempting to regard this as merely a temporarily stand-in role for this particular enchantment scene. But it ought to be noted with much more gravitas, considering that her husband and father is Craster, a partial current Night’s King who sacrifices his sons to the Others. I will show you that Gilly is featured as a stand-in corpse queen at the Nightfort and the lichyard of Castle Black just as well, in a manner that is as obvious as in the frosted forest scene.
In other words, all of a sudden Craster does have a “corpse queen” for a wife, after all. In fact, in contrast to Melisandre, Gilly is repeatedly staged to stand-in for the corpse queen in all the right places.
While Gilly is unsuccessful with Jon, she repeats the offer to Sam after the birth of her son and Craster’s death.
“Where?” asked Sam, puzzled. “Where should I take her?”
“Someplace warm,” the two old women said as one.
Gilly was crying. “Me and the babe. Please. I’ll be your wife, like I was Craster’s. Please, ser crow. He’s a boy, just like Nella said he’d be. If you don’t take him, they will.” (aSoS, Samwell II)
And Gilly ends up being smuggled by a brother of the Night’s Watch, Samwell, south of the Wall via the Black Gate into the Nightfort!
Then there was light, and Bran saw the pale thin-faced girl by the lip of the well, all bundled up in furs and skins beneath an enormous black cloak, trying to shush the screaming baby in her arms.
“Who are you?” Jojen asked the girl with the baby.
“Gilly,” she said. “For the gillyflower. He’s Sam. We never meant to scare you.” She rocked her baby and murmured at it, and finally it stopped crying.
Meera was untangling the fat brother. Jojen went to the well and peered down. “Where did you come from?”
“From Craster’s,” the girl said.
“How did you get through the Wall?” Jojen demanded as Sam struggled to his feet. “Does the well lead to an underground river, is that where you came from? You’re not even wet . . .”
“There’s a gate,” said fat Sam. “A hidden gate, as old as the Wall itself. The Black Gate, he called it.” (aSoS, Bran IV)
I argued in What Use is a Night’s King under the section smuggling that the corpse queen as Other or magical monster could not have gone through the Black Gate. She took another watery route. But as a human, Gilly can pass through of course.
Notice there are two references in Gilly’s conversation with Jojen, Meera and Bran that echo her conversation with Jon during the enchanting dawn at Craster’s Keep: she’s Gilly for the Gilliflower, from Craster’s. In this manner, George wants us to recall that initial staged scene where we get our first and foremost reference to Gilly standing in for the corpse queen. This time she is not frosting the air with her breath, but said to be pale.
Gilly as a stand-in corpse queen with her baby boy at the Nightfort itself, supports the notion that the corpse queen desired to get south of the Wall in order to get her sons (Others) south of the Wall. It also supports my proposal in From Sandkings to Nightqueens that the thing-that-came-in-the-night was the unglamored monstrous corpse queen, since Bran fears that what he hears coming towards them from the well is that specific monster.
The sound wasn’t coming from outside, though. Bran felt the hairs on his arm start to rise. The sound’s inside, it’s in here with us, and it’s getting louder. He pushed himself up onto an elbow, listening. There was wind, and blowing leaves as well, but this was something else. Footsteps. Someone was coming this way. Something was coming this way. […] Or maybe it wasn’t Mad Axe at all, maybe it was the thing that came in the night. The ‘prentice boys all saw it, Old Nan said, but afterward when they told their Lord Commander every description had been different. And three died within the year, and the fourth went mad, and a hundred years later when the thing had come again, the ‘prentice boys were seen shambling along behind it, all in chains. […] That was only a story, though. He was just scaring himself. There was no thing that comes in the night, Maester Luwin had said so. If there had ever been such a thing, it was gone from the world now, like giants and dragons. […] The footfalls sounded heavy to Bran, slow, ponderous, scraping against the stone. It must be huge. Mad Axe had been a big man in Old Nan’s story, and the thing that came in the night had been monstrous. (aSoS, Bran IV)
The fact that maester Luwin claimed it did not exist – or that if it ever did was gone like giants and dragons – is actually a tell-tale hint that it did exist, that it still exists, just as giants and dragons do. (see Bran Stark (Part I) – Serwyn Reversed of the Mirror Mirror essay series).
George even inserts a hint to Craster, with the legend horror tale of Mad Axe. The axe is a heavily featured weapon in the aCoK’s chapter at Craster’s, and that is prior to Gilly confirming they “come from” Craster’s.
Craster gave a shrug. “Happens I have better things to do than tend to the comings and goings of crows.” He drank a pull of beer and set the cup aside. “Had no good southron wine up here for a bear’s night. I could use me some wine, and a new axe.Mine’s lost its bite, can’t have that, I got me women to protect.” He gazed around at his scurrying wives. (aCoK, Jon III)
In a second Craster quote about the axe, we even have a Sandking maw reference for his wife, whose mouth is said to be a wet pink cave.
The woman’s mouth hung open, a wet pink cave, but Craster only gave a snort. “We’ve had no such troubles here . . . and I’ll thank you not to tell such evil tales under my roof. I’m a godly man, and the gods keep me safe. If wights come walking, I’ll know how to send them back to their graves. Though I could use me a sharp new axe.” (aCoK, Jon III)
We also have a maw human-eating reference for Gilly as the stand-in for the corpse queen, since Gilly and Sam end up into the kitchens of the Nightfort!
In From Sandkings to Nightqueens, I pointed out how Mel gains power in the eyes of Stannis, after Cressen stepped through the maw-entrance of the feast hall of Dragonstone. The Nightfort’s kitchens represent the same thing.
“Will Gilly be safe if I leave her here till I come back?” Sam asked them.
“She should be,” said Meera. “She’s welcome to our fire.”
Jojen said, “The castle is empty.”
Gilly looked around. “Craster used to tell us tales of castles, but I never knew they’d be so big.” It’s only the kitchens. Bran wondered what she’d think when she saw Winterfell, if she ever did. (aSoS, Bran IV)
George could have chosen so many locations for Bran and Gilly to spend the night. He could have the well go up in a more logical location. But no, he writes a fake well with an underground tunnel leading into a kitchen, and not just any kitchen but a kitchen where THE ultimate horror story of the Rat Cook is alleged to have taken place!
That was where the Rat Cook chopped the prince to pieces, he knew, and he baked the pie in one of these ovens. […] The Rat Cook had cooked the son of the Andal king in a big pie with onions, carrots, mushrooms, lots of pepper and salt, a rasher of bacon, and a dark red Dornish wine. Then he served him to his father, who praised the taste and had a second slice. Afterward the gods transformed the cook into a monstrous white rat who could only eat his own young. He had roamed the Nightfort ever since, devouring his children, but still his hunger was not sated. “It was not for murder that the gods cursed him,” Old Nan said, “nor for serving the Andal king his son in a pie. A man has a right to vengeance. But he slew a guest beneath his roof, and that the gods cannot forgive.” (aSoS, Bran IV)
And when it comes to smuggling of corpse queens, remember how we were shown that after Mel (another corpse queen parallel) was smuggled behind Storm’s End’s warded walls, she then was sailed from Dragonstone to the Wall. Gilly too sails, after having been smuggled south of the Wall by Sam: first to Braavos and afterwards to Oldtown.
Oldtown is of special interest. The Hightower is likely warded as well as it is one of the alleged buildings that Bran the Builder helped out with, aside from Storm’s End, the Wall and Winterfell. It certainly leads to interesting possibilities to have Gilly as stand-in corpse queen show up, with a “son”, at Oldtown. Especially, if a rival maw power like Shade can be expected to move onto Oldtown with Euron’s fleet. I will hold off on the speculations for Gilly and Sam for Oldtown for now, because it should be done alongside of Euron’s essay as Night’s King with his Shady queen by his side.
One other final staging clue is the location from where Jon sees off Gilly, Sam and maester Aemon – the lichyard.
The hour before dawn was dark and still. Castle Black seemed strangely hushed. At the lichyard, a pair of two-wheeled wayns awaited him, along with Black Jack Bulwer and a dozen seasoned rangers, tough as the garrons they rode. (aFfC, Samwell I)
It is the sole scene in the published novels so far that actually takes place in a lichyard. And it is here that Gilly proudly declares her identity once again, just as she did inside the Nightfort’s kitchen to Bran and in the enchanted iced forest to Jon.
“As you command, my lady.”
A spasm of anger flashed across Gilly’s face. “Don’t you call me that. I’m a mother, not a lady. I’m Craster’s wife and Craster’s daughter, and a mother.” (aFfC, Samwell I)
This is a unusual display of commanding presence by Gilly. She is almost queenly. So we have a queen of the lichyard, or a corpse queen.
Notice too how she denies being a lady. It is an odd denial, for Gilly could regard it as a compliment (unless she was akin to Arya). But we can comprehend the deeper meaning of the denial much better, once we consider another Lady tied to a lichyard – Sansa’s direwolf whose bones were buried in Winterfell’s lichyard after they were sent to Winterfell from Darry where Ned Stark killed her. As a corpse queen, Gilly is angered by being referenced as a direwolf, or a Stark.
So, we can establish three identity declarations by Gilly in her arc, and in all three she is staged as a corpse queen figure. Why?
If we consider Mel as mostly representing the sorceress aspect of the corpse queen and Euron’s Shade (of the evening) the hivemind abilities, then Gilly stands for the most natural aspect of the corpse queen – motherhood.
Time and time again Gilly is portrayed as either pregnant, nursing or leaking mother’s milk and weeping for the son she loses. Even a monster such as the corpse queen loves her children, nurses them and weeps for them. When Jon scouts the Skirling Pass of the Frostfangs, George writes the following as a description of the icy surroundings.
The Frostfangs were as cruel as any place the gods had made, and as inimical to men. The wind cut like a knife up here, and shrilled in the night like a mother mourning her slain children. What few trees they saw were stunted, grotesque things growing sideways out of cracks and fissures. Tumbled shelves of rock often overhung the trail, fringed with hanging icicles that looked like long white teeth from a distance. (aCoK, Jon)
The name of this icy mountain range that goes as far as the Lands of Always Winter are basically named icy fangs, cruel and hostile to men, that can cut like a knife. And the paragraph compares icicles to long white teeth. And right smack in the middle of those teeth, is the evocative image of a night’s mother weeping or mourning her dead children, which would be Others (her sons) or mini-maws (her daughters). At the heart of the cruel, deadly Others is a mother weeping for the children that were slain in the past. It is as if George is signaling that our maw, the corpse queen, is a mother mourning the Others killed in the past, and her hostility towards men stems from this.
Of course, Gilly is not the sole mother in the series nursing and weeping over children, but not every mother is cast as a corpse queen linked to a Night’s Kinglike figure. Nor is any woman so associated with mother milk, except perhaps Lysa Arryn, whom I have already associated to be tied to an ice spider mother figure in the Plutonian Others.
“Who is Gilly?”
“The wet nurse,” said Lady Melisandre. “Your Grace gave her freedom of the castle.”
“Not for running tales. She’s wanted for her teats, not for her tongue. I’ll have more milk from her, and fewer messages.”
“Castle Black needs no useless mouths,” Jon agreed. “I am sending Gilly south on the next ship out of Eastwatch.”
Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck. “Gilly is giving suck to Dalla’s son as well as her own. It seems cruel of you to part our little prince from his milk brother, my lord.”
Careful now, careful. “Mother’s milk is all they share. Gilly’s son is larger and more robust. He kicks the prince and pinches him, and shoves him from the breast. Craster was his father, a cruel man and greedy, and blood tells.”
The king was confused. “I thought the wet nurse was this man Craster’s daughter?”
“Wife and daughter both, Your Grace. Craster married all his daughters. Gilly’s boy was the fruit of their union.”
“Her own father got this child on her?” Stannis sounded shocked. “We are well rid of her, then. I will not suffer such abominations here. This is not King’s Landing.”(aDwD, Jon I)
At the Wall, Gilly is clarified to be both the wet nurse, wanted for her teats and milk, but as ever accompanied with the reminder that she was Craster’s wife and daughter. And in this scene, it become quite ironic that the one Night’s King figure present regards a corpse queen stand-in of another Night’s King figure an abomination and agrees they are well rid of her.
This scene also reveals Gilly does not just signify the motherhood aspect alone, but it also relates her to a third factor of the use of a Night’s King: binding, or in Gilly’s case bonding. The fact that Dalla’s boy and Gilly’s son both drink her mother’s milk makes them milk brothers. And in truth breastfeeding facilitates emotional bonding, as it releases oxytocin in the body and brain, a hormone that makes us feel connected and loving.
Notice too, how Mel – another corpse queen figure – touches her ruby, when she makes the argument for Stannis to not allow Gilly be sent away with “her son”. As I mentioned already in From Sandkings to Nightqueens, the wearer of one of Mel’s rubies is not merely used for a glamor spell alone, but the wearer or carrier is also bound to Mel in blood and soul: this also applies to Stannis; for his glamored sword has a great square ruby in the hilt. We witness Mel trying to use her magical bond with Stannis, while we are equally told of the bond between two persons because of Gilly’s milk.
It then becomes interesting that Gilly’s nursing is not only tied to feeding sons, but also grown men. Samwell has a dream of a feast at Horn Hill, where he is the Lord of Horn Hill, and when the feast is done, he goes to his old room that he shared with his sisters, only to find Gilly there.
When the feast was done he went up to sleep; not to the lord’s bedchamber where his mother and father lived but to the room he had once shared with his sisters. Only instead of his sisters it was Gilly waiting in the huge soft bed, wearing nothing but a big shaggy fur, milk leaking from her breasts. (aSoS, Samwell III)
Dolorous Edd makes an innuendo to Sam that he would not mind being on Gilly’s teat, while Gilly herself evokes the image of leaking milk.
“That’s the one. If my wet nurse had looked like her, I’d still be on the teat. Mine had whiskers.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I have to go. It’s past time that I fed them. I’ll be leaking all over myself if I don’t go.” She rushed across the yard, leaving Sam perplexed behind her.(aFfC, Samwell I)
Or how about Samwell actually ending up drinking Gilly’s mother milk when Gilly and him copulate.
The Cinnamon Wind was spinning all around them and he could taste the rum on Gilly’s tongue and the next thing her breasts were bare and he was touching them. I said the words, Sam thought again, but one of her nipples found its way between his lips. It was pink and hard and when he sucked on it her milk filled his mouth, mingling with the taste of rum, and he had never tasted anything so fine and sweet and good. If I do this I am no better than Dareon, Sam thought, but it felt too good to stop. And suddenly his cock was out, jutting upward from his breeches like a fat pink mast. It looked so silly standing there that he might have laughed, but Gilly pushed him back onto her pallet, hiked her skirts up around her thighs, and lowered herself onto him with a little whimpery sound. That was even better than her nipples. She’s so wet, he thought, gasping. I never knew a woman could get so wet down there. “I am your wife now,” she whispered, sliding up and down on him. And Sam groaned and thought, No, no, you can’t be, I said the words, I said the words, but the only word he said was, “Yes.” (aFfC, Samwell III)
And as a result, Samwell bonds to Gilly even more.
[…] so all that Sam could do was struggle back into his blacks. He found them on the deck beneath his hammock, all bundled up in one damp heap. He sniffed at them to see how foul they were, and inhaled the smell of salt and sea and tar, wet canvas and mildew, fruit and fish and blackbelly rum, strange spices and exotic woods, and a heady bouquet of his own dried sweat. But Gilly’s smell was on them too, the clean smell of her hair and the sweet smell of her milk, and that made him glad to wear them. (aFfC, Samwell III)
So, we have two grown men being pictured in a situation where they are breastfed, while Gilly, the corpse queen stand-in leaks milk if she does not feed her children. While readers may consider this some particular fetish of George himself, I consider it a hint to the maw-mobile manner of feeding in Sandkings.
“The mobiles eat pap—predigested food obtained inside the castle. They get it from the maw after she has worked on it for several days. Their stomachs can’t handle anything else, so if the maw dies, they soon die as well.” (Dreamsongs I – Sandkings)
The heart and stomach of the hivemind (the maw) is the sole one able to actually consume food. Her mobiles cannot eat prey, only tear it apart and deliver it to the maw. But the maw feeds her mobiles with a type of pap or sap she secretes. Since the corpse queen is imo similarly a maw, except one in a furry spider shape, she would feed her grown sons, the Others. And the sap she would feed them with is conceptually comparable to milk.
The pair of Craster and Gilly thus make for an interesting couple to learn about the feeding habbits of both Others and the corpse queen: Crasters feeds the corpse queen with his sons, while Gilly shows how the corpse queen maw nurses the Others.
Which then also gives us some insight why George wrote Lysa Arryn to nurses her seven year old son at a far.
“Don’t be afraid, my sweet baby,” Lysa whispered. “Mother’s here, nothing will hurt you.” She opened her robe and drew out a pale, heavy breast, tipped with red. The boy grabbed for it eagerly, buried his face against her chest, and began to suck. Lysa stroked his hair. (aCoK, Catelyn VI)
The maester combed his fingers through his hair, dribbling globs of porridge on the floor. “Lady Lysa would give his lordship her breast whenever he grew overwrought. Archmaester Ebrose claims that mother’s milk has many healthful properties.”
“Is that your counsel, maester? That we find a wet nurse for the Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale? When shall we wean him, on his wedding day? That way he can move directly from his nurse’s nipples to his wife’s.” Lord Petyr’s laugh made it plain what he thought of that. (aFfC, Alayne I)
And just as a reminder, notice Lysa’s color scheme.
Lysa, freshly scrubbed and garbed in cream velvet with a rope of sapphires and moonstones around her milk-white neck, was holding court on the terrace overlooking the scene of the combat, surrounded by her knights, retainers, and lords high and low.
There are many more references for Gilly with nursing and milk or mother’s milk. But those I cited are some of the most important one in certain scenes and unrelated to babies, as a takeaway that Gilly can be regarded as a source of insight about the corpse queen in a physical way. Though Gilly is human and the corpse queen is not, the physical aspects that are heavily featured in Gilly should have their analogy with the corpse queen.
Copies for Children
Which brings me back to Craster and his nineteen wives who are also his daughters: the incest. As other readers have noted, the number nineteen is quite interesting as there are nineteen castles in total along the Wall and according to Tyrion nineteen dragon skulls in the Red Keep.
There were nineteen skulls. The oldest was more than three thousand years old; the youngest a mere century and a half. The most recent were also the smallest; a matched pair no bigger than mastiff’s skulls, and oddly misshapen, all that remained of the last two hatchlings born on Dragonstone. They were the last of the Targaryen dragons, perhaps the last dragons anywhere, and they had not lived very long. (aGoT, Tyrion II)
The Watch had built nineteen great strongholds along the Wall, but only three were still occupied: Eastwatch on its grey windswept shore, the Shadow Tower hard by the mountains where the Wall ended, and Castle Black between them, at the end of the kingsroad. The other keeps, long deserted, were lonely, haunted places, where cold winds whistled through black windows and the spirits of the dead manned the parapets. (aGoT, Jon III)
For those who widen their eyes at the mention of the oldest dragon skull being three thousand years old, keep in mind that not all skulls have been identified, and therefore not all skulls are necessarily Targaryen dragons nor have to date from past the conquest. Some of these skulls might have been carried from Valyria to Dragonstone by the Targaryens before they abandoned Old Valyria, expecting the coming Doom. Maybe the oldest dragon skull is the ancestral, first dragon of the Targaryens if and when they became a dragonriding family at Old Valyria (over three thousand years ago). Maybe it is the skull of a native wild dragon of Dragonstone the Targaryens discovered after they moved from Old Valyria to Dragonstone, or someplace else in Westeros.
It is noteworthy that George chose to have nineteen dragon skulls and nineteen defense forts along the Wall in aGoT. This suggests that the nineteen skulls and forts determined how many wives Craster would have. If Gilly is a stand-in wife for the corpse queen, then we can regard the other eighteen wives as stand-ins for the corpse queen as well. This makes for nineteen mortal enemy pairs for each skull with each corpse queen stand-in and a Wall fortress standing in between each pair to keep them from coming to blows. I suspect the number nineteen itself, originating with the number of dragon skulls, is supposed to match the total Targaryens that will be known in the histories recognized as kings or queens of Westeros, after the times of aSoIaF. The Targaryen dynasty starting from Aegon I the Conquerer up to the Mad King comprises of seventeen recognized kings. Two more are in the running, with each likely recognized as such, if they manage to oust the official Baratheon dynasty and claim the Iron Throne, however briefly: Dany and (fake?) Aegon VI.
This puts forward the possibility that there may have been a total of nineteen maws who were all mothers and sisters to each other. I managed to identify several potential maws in George’s world building and histories of Planetos in From Sandkings to Nightqueens, but there may have been more. In Sandkings, maws do not only reproduce mobiles, but new small maws as well. The four maws that Simon Kress possesses are hinted to be Shade’s spawn. On the one hand, Shade attempts to have those maws taken care of, but also wants to keep them small, so they could never rival Shade itself. We have a potential allusion to this in the backstory of Andalos and Lorath combined. For one, the mazemakers built several mazes on every island of Lorath as well as the nearby peninsula of Essos, right smack in the middle of the region of the proto-Andals – the Axe and Hills of Norvos – from which Andalos and the Faith of the Seven faces of one god (hivemind) expanded. (see From Sandkings to Nightqueens in the section “maws”).
Notice how the Axe as “origin” location for the Andals matches with the often mentioned and featured axe at Craster’s. It even appears in the Night’s Watch finding wighted Othor and Jafer in aGoT, or in combination with the thing-that-comes-in-the-night with the tale of Mad Axe. Or how Tyrion thinks of the Velvet Hills of Andalos, where allegedly seven murderous swan maidens roamed, as teats or breasts.
The Velvet Hills proved a disappointment. “Half the whores in Lannisport have breasts bigger than these hills,” he told Illyrio. “You ought to call them the Velvet Teats.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)
And it are both wet nursing Gilly and velvet-wearing Lysa Aryn who are explicitly featured as breastfeeding children and adult men well beyond their weaning age.
Nor should it then be any surprise then that the rat cook’s tale includes an Andal king being served his own son, or that George employed the sole Andal lord of the North to re-enact the rat cook plot. It is yet another tip off by George that the Andalos became a kingdom founded on cannibalism and the sacrifice of human sons.
Now, I have no further inclination to hunt for more maw-locations in the histories of Planetos in this essay, but instead wish to return to the conceptual notion of Craster and his nineteen wives who are mothers, daughters and sisters to one another. As I have before, on the surface Craster’s wives seem anathema to the Night’s King template of a king-figure wed to one hivemind controlling maw. And yet, it is also an excellent parallel to a maw’s method of procreation. While characters and readers often talk, think or write of a Sandking-maw or an aSoIaF-maw such as the corpse queen as female and mother, it is in fact an asexual self-fertilizing lifeform, using some type of autogamy or parthogenesis. It does not copulate with another entity. In that sense, a maw is genetically genderless, both father and mother to its offspring. This is why Varys as a eunuch works as a stand-in for the corpse queen, and why incestual reproduction in a human family also works as a conceptual parallel.
Genetically, a self-fertilizing lifeform reproduces genetical copies of itself. It is nature’s form of “cloning”. Another novella that George published, Nightflyers, includes a ghostly cold human-hating “mother”. As this is a sci-fi of the 1000 worlds world building, she ended up making a male clone of herself (Royd), who is regarded as her son, but in truth a clone.
“I should not call her my mother,” Royd said. “I am her cross-sex clone. After thirty years of flying this ship alone, she was bored. I was to be her companion and lover. She could shape me to be a perfect diversion. She had no patience with children, however, and no desire to raise me herself. After she had done the cloning, I was sealed in a nurturant tank, an embryo linked into her computer. It was my teacher. Before birth and after. I had no birth, really. Long after the time a normal child would have been born, I remained in the tank, growing, learning, on slow-time, blind and dreaming and living through tubes. I was to be released when I had attained the age of puberty, at which time she guessed I would be fit company.” (Dreamsongs I, Nightflyers)
The passengers on the Nightflyer eventually discover that the ghost of Royd’s “mother” still lives in the controls of the ship, and that she is the one who is behind mysterious murders and accidents. Aside from a cold hatred, she is also showcased to be able to posses the bodies and limbs of the dead to kill the remaining survivors. Royd’s mother therefore is a proto-corpse queen with the ability to control wights remotely.
You can read the transcript with commentary of Nightflyers on the Fattest Leech’s blog, where she too makes the same argument about cloning and what she refers to as self-pollinization: the closest manner in which humans can attempt to reproduce genetic copies of themselves without having access to scientific cloning technologies is through incest. So, when George writes human characters that are to perform a stand-in role for an entity that self-fertilizes, then incest comes the closest to it.
Naturally, we can then already project that this is partially why George chose for Targaryens to be incestuous. The Valyrian word for dragon is genderless and it is impossible to determine a dragon’s sex unless it lays eggs, which may hatch without fertilization (and thus parthogenesis). The dragon and the spider may be one another’s eternal enemies, eternally divided, but their manner of reproduction is similar – genetical copies.
That is why I think George wrote Craster to have 19 wives who are also his daughters to match 19 dragon skulls, kept from warring one another with 19 forts on a Wall that does not allow Others to pass south, and dragons to fly north.
The Wolf and the Maw
I already highlighted how, at a deeper level, Gilly denies being like a direwolf while being staged as the corpse queen at a lichyard in a prior subsection. It is not the first time that Gilly is set against a direwolf or Jon. It occurs several times, from the very moment they first meet. In fact, the same scene where Gilly is staged as corpse queen at Castle Black’s ends with Jon Snow referencing that first meeting in wolf terms.
Jon was watching the wayns. “The first time I saw Gilly,” he said, “she was pressed back against the wall of Craster’s Keep, this skinny dark-haired girl with her big belly, cringing away from Ghost. He had gotten in among her rabbits, and I think she was frightened that he would tear her open and devour the babe . . . but it was not the wolf she should have been afraid of, was it?”
No, Sam thought. Craster was the danger, her own father. (aFfC, Samwell I)
Jon was remembering. “The first time I saw Gilly she was pressed back against the wall of Craster’s Keep, this skinny dark-haired girl with her big belly, cringing away from Ghost. He had gotten in among her rabbits, and I think she was frightened that he would tear her open and devour the babe … but it was not the wolf she should have been afraid of, was it?”
“She has more courage than she knows,” said Sam. (aDwD, Jon II)
Unaware of the fact that Jon forced Gilly to leave her son behind and take Dalla’s with her instead, it is not surprising that Samwell considers only Craster to be the danger in the above quote. Sam lacks the necessary information to understand Jon’s true meaning of his words. Furthermore, Sam’s thoughts about Craster misdirect the reader to the wrong scene between Jon and Gilly in aCoK: the one where Jon learns about Craster sacrificing his sons to the Others while standing in a frozen enchanted forest.
“Is it Craster who frightens you, Gilly?”
“For the baby, not for me. If it’s a girl, that’s not so bad, she’ll grow a few years and he’ll marry her. But Nella says it’s to be a boy, and she’s had six and knows these things. He gives the boys to the gods. Come the white cold, he does, and of late it comes more often. That’s why he started giving them sheep, even though he has a taste for mutton. Only now the sheep’s gone too. Next it will be dogs, till . . .” She lowered her eyes and stroked her belly. […] “Will you take me? Just so far as the Wall—”
“We do not ride for the Wall. We ride north, after Mance Rayder and these Others, these white shadows and their wights. We seek them, Gilly. Your babe would not be safe with us.” (aCoK, Jon III)
That is not the actual scene that Jon is remembering and referencing. Jon alludes to his first meeting with Gilly, an earlier scene of the same chapter.
He was wondering where to find Sam when he heard a shout of fear. “Wolf!” He sprinted around the hall toward the cry, the earth sucking at his boots. One of Craster’s women was backed up against the mud-spattered wall of the keep. “Keep away,” she was shouting at Ghost. “You keep away!” The direwolf had a rabbit in his mouth and another dead and bloody on the ground before him. “Get it away, m’lord,” she pleaded when she saw him.
The woman regarded them with nervous eyes. She was younger than he’d thought at first. A girl of fifteen or sixteen years, he judged, dark hair plastered across a gaunt face by the falling rain, her bare feet muddy to the ankles. The body under the sewn skins was showing in the early turns of pregnancy. “Are you one of Craster’s daughters?” he asked.
She put a hand over her belly. “Wife now.” Edging away from the wolf, she knelt mournfully beside the broken hutch. “I was going to breed them rabbits. There’s no sheep left.” […] She wiped her hands on her skirt. “M’lord—” “I’m no lord.” (aCoK, Jon III)
Gilly’s denial of being a lady at the lichyard mirrors their interaction here. At Craster’s Gilly addressed Jon as m’lord, a title Jon denies any claim to. At Castle Black, Jon addresses Gilly as my lady, and she angrily proclaims that Jon should not be calling her that. So, what is the wolf’s threat referred to both in the lichyard at Castle Black as well as the first meeting?
But others had come crowding round, drawn by the woman’s scream and the crash of the rabbit hutch. “Don’t you believe him, girl,” called out Lark the Sisterman, a ranger mean as a cur. “That’s Lord Snow himself.”
“Bastard of Winterfell and brother to kings,” mocked Chett, who’d left his hounds to see what the commotion was about.
“That wolf’s looking at you hungry, girl,” Lark said. “Might be it fancies that tender bit in your belly.”
Jon was not amused. “You’re scaring her.”
“Warning her, more like.” Chett’s grin was as ugly as the boils that covered most of his face. (aCoK, Jon III)(aCoK, Jon III)
Chett and Lark indicate that Jon is a threat to Gilly’s son. Maester Aemon later refers to Jon as Lord Snow and how only as Lord Snow, Jon would be able to make the stone hearted decision to swap babies and separate a child from its mother.
“No. No, that’s wrong. Jon would never . . .”
“Jon would never. Lord Snow did. Sometimes there is no happy choice, Sam, only one less grievous than the others.” (aFfC, Samwell II)
He could not blame Gilly for her grief. Instead, he blamed Jon Snow and wondered when Jon’s heart had turned to stone. Once he asked Maester Aemon that very question, when Gilly was down at the canal fetching water for them. “When you raised him up to be the lord commander,” the old man answered. (aFfC, Samwell III)
So, Chett and Lark were correct to warn Gilly against Lord Snow who would use her unborn son for his own ends – save Dalla’s son. Though neither Ghost or Jon/Lord Snow would ever eat Gilly’s son, it should be noted that Lark’s jape about the wolf fancying the unborn child is yet another hint at Craster’s sons being a food offering.
Now, in the cited scenes Jon and Ghost is mostly featured as a threat to Gilly’s son, rather than Gilly herself. And it is often seen as foreshadowing for a deadly fate of Gilly’s son, nicknamed monster. I will come back to that in the section for the one other surviving character who can be regarded as Craster’s legacy – his son.
But it is not the sole scene where Gilly feels or is threatened by a wolf, physically or metaphorically. There is this scene at the Nightfort:
A shadow detached itself from the broken dome above and leapt down through the moonlight. Even with his injured leg, the wolf landed as light and quiet as a snowfall. The girl Gilly made a frightened sound and clutched her babe so hard against her that it began to cry again. (aSoS, Bran IV)
Here we have Summer frightening Gilly. Bran assures her Summer will not hurt her, and they leave Gilly and her nursing baby soon after to pass through the Black Gate. Summer and Bran indeed cannot pose a direct threat to Gilly or her son, but we should not forget that in this particular scene, Gilly is a stand-in for the corpse queen. It suggests the idea that if the corpse queen detects Summer and thus Bran north of the Wall, she and her sons, the Others, might take a fright, and respond defensively. We do indeed witness wights trying to ambush Bran and Summer, and failing in it, gather more wights in front of the warded cave. And of course, the summer season or the return of it, would scare her.
And then we have this hidden clue, when Jon is given the offer by Stannis to become Lord of Winterfell with Val as his wife. Jon’s thoughts at some point are intruded by Ghost’s, who rejoins him after finding his own way back to Castle Black from the caves where Jon and the Free Folk slept the night before climbing the Wall.
He wanted it, Jon knew then. He wanted it as much as he had ever wanted anything. I have always wanted it, he thought, guiltily. May the gods forgive me. It was a hunger inside him, sharp as a dragonglass blade. A hunger . . . he could feel it. It was food he needed, prey, a red deer that stank of fear or a great elk proud and defiant. He needed to kill and fill his belly with fresh meat and hot dark blood. His mouth began to water with the thought. (aSoS, Jon XII)
“Ah-ah, but there is no Gilly in this scene!” you might argue. Not directly, no. Notice however that Jon-Ghost think of a red deer stinking of fear as needed prey. And Gilly is described as a frightened doe by Samwell, after she flees from Jon’s office who just forced her to agree to swap her son for Mance’s.
“Sam.” Her voice sounded raw. Gilly was dark-haired and slim, with the big brown eyes of a doe. She was swallowed by the folds of Sam’s old cloak, her face half-hidden by its hood, but shivering all the same. Her face looked wan and frightened. (aFfC, Samwell I)
The hunger Jon experiences for a red frightened deer is compared to a sharp dragonglass blade. What a strange item to compare it to. It is not an everyday blade. It is a weapon to slay Others. Tie this hunger to strike a dragonglass blade at fearful deer, with Gilly being compared to a frightened doe, and George conjures the idea of the wolf Jon striking at the corpse queen, and that the corpse queen fears him.
And in a strange way, George even describes Jon as a wolf feeling a hunger for fresh meat and dark blook like the corpse queen. Who else knows how sharp a dragonglass blade cuts? The Others that were killed with it, have not survived to consider how painful it is. But their mother would have experienced it through the hivemind without being killed by it.
Even from this vantage point, Chett’ and Lark’s foreshadowing warnings in the first meeting between Jon and Gilly as a stand-in corpse queen are correct. Jon discovered the cache of obsidian and broken horn with the help of Ghost, passed it around to Samwell and his Night’s Watch friends, and Samwell ended up slaying one of the Others, the maw’s son, by happenstance, and now Stannis and the Night’s Watch know how lethal it is against the Others.
The wolf versus the corpse queen foreshadowing ends with Jon being woken by Dolorous Edd at the hour of the wolf, and Gilly as the queen of the lichyard.
When he woke, he found Edd Tollett looming over him in the darkness of his bedchamber. “M’lord? It is time. The hour of the wolf. You left orders to be woken.” (aDwD, Jon II)
The time for the wolf has come to do what Chett and Lark warned Gilly about: she is forced to leave her child behind.
The point about showing these repeated forewarnings of a wolf as a potential threat to Gilly or her son is to warn readers against speculating about forewarnings for Gilly or her actual baby. It may be in some cases only a forewarning of the threat that Jon poses to the corpse queen and her son(s), the Others. Jon may be a threat to both Gilly and the corpse queen, but also just the corpse queen, or on the contrary just Gilly.
We have established that Craster is a Night’s King figure by sacrificing his sons, sheep, pigs and dogs to the Others. And there is plenty of circumstantial literary evidence to back up the notion that his sons help to feed the lifeform that is mother to the Others.
Once we recognize that his story role as Night’s King figure is purely one of physical support, we see that not just he but his wives too are key to understand the Others and their corpse queen, the maw, as lifeform in its physical needs and way of procreation.
Gilly is repeatedly cast as the corpse queen:
when she offers to be Jon’s wife in a magical frosted forest after the dawn;
when she is smuggled inside the Nightfort into the Rat Cook’s kitchen;
when she says goodbye to Jon at Castle Black’s lichyard.
As a physical stand-in for the corpse queen, Gilly is mostly portrayed and associated as mother weeping over the son taken from her and nursing not only babies but grown men. From this we can infer that the corpse queen in her own turn secretes a type of sap or pap (mother’s milk) that is food for her adult sons, the Others.
And just like Gilly is a corpse queen, so are her sisters and mothers. In the sci-fi Nightflyer, George uses cloning for the crazy cold mother hellbent on killing humans. In Sandkings, the maws perform some type of self-fertilization (autogamy), which is nature’s version of cloning. And while the corpse queen could certainly be reproducing sons (Others) and daughters (mini-maws) via autogamy, this natural manner of reproduction is impossible for non-magical humans and cloning technology is not available. So, in the fantasy world of Westeros, George has the family of Craster and his 19 wives mimics the corpse queen’s reproduction system commit a form of incest that comes the closest to creating clones.
With Gilly as stand-in for the corpse queen at the Nightfort, we get another suggestive parallel with the thing-that-only-comes-at-Night, since Bran believes that is who is coming nearer to them, when he hears shuffling, stumblind and steps underground drawing nearer to the well.
Finally, Jon is also often cast as a wolf threat to Gilly and her son. This then is not just meant in the sense that he forces Gilly to leave her son behind and swap him for Mance’s, but just as well that the corpse queen should fear Jon and how he may harm her.
(Top illustration: metaphorical reaper Others riding Ice Spiders, by Jon Howe, for 2020 aSoIaF Calendar)
For the first time in years I touch upon the Others, a subject I sidelined. But as I have been working on drafts for other essay, I keep bumping into them, and for those drafts to work, I cannot but expand on them, and thus write an article on them. Meanwhile, season 8 of the show was about to start, and this generated several discussions between myself, the Fattest Leech and Kissdbyfire on the nature of the Others, and ultimately the decision to write an analysis and formulate a proposal about them.
There are several sources that can shed a light on this, some more trustworthy than others, while some conflict with one another: the books (including peripheral ones set in Planetos), George’s own words in interviews and to illustrators who had to draw them, prior writing of George that falls outside the Planetos universe, and the show. For example Tom Patterson helped to illustrate the graphic novels of a Song of Ice and Fire. And he says that “[Martin] spoke a lot about what [the Others] were not, but what they were was harder to put into words.” And well, we have to do the same to start out with: clarify what they are not. And when we do that, it becomes instantly clear which source is the least reliable, but alas also the best well known one: the show Game of Thrones.
The show gave us men of icy substance, initially with a strange type of language of their own in S3 when they attack the Night’s Watch, but have remained mum ever since. The show also “revealed” in S4 that the White Walkers took human babies and when the Night King touched them with his finger at his “ice palace” they became ice-babies, who supposedly grow up into White Walkers or short WWs (the WeeWees). In S6 the show expands on this through a flashback that Bran sees while he’s being trained by the three-eyed-raven: the Night King was once a human himself, a man, tied to a weirwood tree, by Children of the Forest. They stuck a dragonstone into his heart to make him their minion to drive the First Men off as they threatened the peaceful existence of the Children and he became the icy Night’s King. So, basically, according to the show all the White Walkers, including the Night King, are humans tansformed into ice. Flesh-made-into-ice so to speak. But the portrayal of the White Walkers after George was not part of the writing team anymore is highly questionable. Many readers speculated along the lines of what the show ended up doing. But there are serious problems with this explanation, whether it is argued by readers or the main writers of the show, D&D. For all we know, D&D scoured the internet for fan theories to explain the “making of” and went with a theory that gained traction, thereby amplifying it, without there actually being a thorough re-examination of it.
So, we deconstruct the portrayal of the White Walkers as depicted on the show and point out differences. These have major implications both on the origin story of the Others, what they are, and what narrative role they serve in the books. We rely on book information we have, George’s own words about the Others as well as Benioff’s and Weiss’s. We examine their physical description, using text from the books, but also George’s words on them to illustrators. With that evidence we offer a speculation on this particular lifeform, using scientific knowledge insofar it is supported by text and fits symbolically and is supported by parallels.
This article is not written just by myself, but is a joint effort that came into being with the help of The Fattest Leech and Kissdbyfire. We are the “three-headed ice dragon”.
As this is a long essay, this index may help navigate to the different sections:
The first issue is that there is no Night King as leader for the Others in the books, nor was he the first White Walker. In the books the Night’s King (different title) was indeed a man, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch to be specific. Old Nan and maester Yandel have this to say about the Night’s King.
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 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. (tWoIaF – the Wall and Beyond: The Night’s Watch)
Clearly the Night’s King of the books cannot be the Night King of the show, nor could he be the beginning of the Others, as he existed when there was already a Wall and a Night’s Watch, a structure and a force specifically created before his existence to deal with the threat of the Others, after the Long Night. The Night’s King was not a White Walker, not an Other, let alone King of the Others, and he did not live during the Long Night. Think of him as a type of Craster as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch at the Nightfort.
George Martin himself has made it quite clear that the two should not be confused with one another.
As for the Night’s King (the form I prefer), in the books he is a legendary figure, akin to Lann the Clever and Brandon the Builder, and no more likely to have survived to the present day than they have. (So Spake Martin on Maegor III and the Night’s King)
You might argue, “Yes I know all that. That does not disprove there once might have been a man who ended up as the First White Walker and who makes all the other Weewees – an Adam-WeeWee.” Indeed, that alone does not disprove it. But then Benioff and Weiss have this to say about the Night King in a 2019 EW interview (thank you Lolligag for posting a link to this interview during a discussion at westeros.org).
EW asked GoT showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss what inspired them to add the character to their HBO hit series.
“It was almost logical as you went back in time, as you create the prehistory for all this,” Weiss said. “We’ve seen what the White Walkers do, we’ve seen how they perpetuate themselves and created the wights. If you’re going backwards, well, they made these things … so what made them? We always liked the implication that they weren’t some kind of cosmic evil that had been around since the beginning to time but that the White Walkers had a history — that something that seems legendary and mythological and permanentwasn’t. They had a historical cause that was comprehensible like the way the wars on screen we’re seeing unfold are comprehensible. They’re the result of people, or beings, with motivations we can understand.” […] “And once you go back into that flashback scene, that required a person there — and that was Vlad, who for a long time was our best stuntman,” Benioff added. (Game of Thrones runners explain why they created the Night King, EW, by James Hibber, March 26 2019)
Their statements heavily indicate they themselves decided to insert a person and character as leader and creator of the Weewees in order make him something with motives that viewers can easily recognize and relate to. Unfortunately it also turns the Weewees into soldiers of a Big Bad Villain that Doctor Who or Marvel heroes can neutralize and then it is game over (at least for the Night King and his army). While it seems to make the leader of the Weewees more complex on an individual basis, and can be quite entertaining, it simplifies the threat, one that has a loophole. The anticlimatic ending of the threat by the end of episode 3 of season 8 shows how problematic this choice truly was.
George’s Night’s King is that historical Big Villain. He allied with the Others and became quite formidable, but an alliance between the King-Beyond-the-Wall Joramun and the Stark King at the time managed to kill him. They did not succeed in ridding Westeros of the Others though. That threat survived to return in the current timeline of the books.
The show’s Night King is a major step away from Lovecraftian horror (a major inspiration for George). Lovecraft might have created a pantheon of big bads, but they were a cosmic ever-existing evil that has an alien disregard for human life (like insects are disinterested about us). Without a Night King, you get a natural threat that is insolvable, comparable to a virus or bacteria. Yes, we might find a vaccine or antibiotic for them, but we cannot completely eradicate it. There is always a risk for a flare that may become an epidemy, even if you take safety and hygiene precautions. And while vaccination nearly managed to push back polio and measles to small pockets of the world, anti-vaccine beliefs allowed such diseases to gain a foothold once more. These threats may not have complex emotional and cognitive motivations behind their actions, but are still incredibly scary, exactly because there is no easy solution.
So, when George RR Martin decided to write a world in which exists a threat to humanity, would he have gone with an Adam-Other who is the Big Bad or a Lovecraftian timeless cosmic hivelike threat that cannot truly be eradicated, when he already has human characters such as Euron who he can turn into a powerful villain? George’s implementation of a historical Night’s King being taken out as the Big Bad and the Others surviving heavily indicates that the Others are a Lovecraftian threat.
Though it is not directly stated in the books that the Others are a separate species, there are indications to argue they are. One of those is the fact that they speak an unknown language that sounds like the cracking of ice and their laughter sounds as sharp as icicles.
The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking. […] Will closed his eyes. Far beneath him, he heard their voices and laughter sharp as icicles. (aGoT, Prologue)
This is unique from any known humanoid species in the books. For each species, George made sure that either their sound or their language coincide with their nature or way of life.
When Leaf, a Child of the Forest, speaks the Common Tongue to Bran, he notices that her voice is strangely musical in a way he has never heard before. The sole way in text for George to clarify how another species’ voice and speech differs from humans is via adjectives such as “strange” or “inhuman” or “never heard of before”.
The Others also have their own language, one that Will does not know. We can conclude though that it is not the Old Tongue that free folk and giants speak. Will may not be able to speak the Old Tongue, but he has been a brother of the Night’s Watch for four years and is a veteran of one hundred ranges, often hunting wildling raiders. Will would recognize the Old Tongue if it was spoken.
Speech and language is an easy tool to help an audience or reader to recognize whether humanoid characters are a different species than humans. Speech is dependent on the vocal cords and the physionomy of the soundbox used to manipulate harmony and pitch of the soundwave. Other species would have a different physionomy and therefore sound and talk quite differently in a manner that humans cannot. For example, Tad Williams features child-sized creatures called ghants in his series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (an epic fantasy series that inspired George). Even if you do not know what they look like, their strange buzzing click-language would alert you of them being an entirely different species.
Initially a language was indeed developed for the show’s pilot by David Peterson. It was called Skroth.
David Peterson, the language consultant who developed Dothraki and Valyrian for the show, also created a spoken language for White Walkers that the showrunners intended to include in the pilot. It’s called Skroth, and probably won’t end up being used even if White Walkers do one day speak. “It was actually going to be for the very first scene of the show where the White Walker comes and cuts that guy’s head off. There are parts where you hear them kind of grumble and vocalize; it was going to be for that,” Peterson explains to Zap2it at San Diego Comic-Con. “I think ultimately they decided they didn’t want them actually saying stuff and even subtitle it. That might have been a little corny, honestly, for the opening scene of the show.” Skroth sounded “pretty scratchy,” Peterson explains, because he used audio modification to “give it a particular sound.” (Screenertv, “‘Game of Thrones’ language creator explains why White Walkers don’t speak”, Terri Schwartz)
While they did not use the Skroth concept in the pilot, there was an attempt in the finale of season 2 to introduce Skroth for the White Walkers. When the army of the dead attacked the Fist and Sam hides behind a rock, one of the WWs makes a high scratchy sound to signal the army to shamble on. This was developed by Peter Brown according to Benioff in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
Peter Brown, our sound designer, is our hero because he finally came up with the ice-cracking chatter we had in our heads when we imagined the White Walkers speaking Skroth. (Entertainment Weekly, ‘Game of Thrones: How producers pulled of ‘Blackwater’, by James Hibberd, May 27 2012)
Since then, the WWs haven’t made a peep any more, despite them leading an army at Hardhome, into the cave of the Children, and so on. Instead, the wights have become the skratchy screechers, so much that it became a plot point in season 7 during the episode when Jon et all go hunt for a wight north of the Wall. Benioff’s recent explanation is that having the Night King speak would diminish him.
Benioff notes that another common question they get about the character is why doesn’t the Night King ever speak. “What’s he going to say?” Benioff asks. “Anything the Night King says diminishes him.” (EW, GOT showrunners explain why they created the Night King, by James Hibber, March 26 2019)
We argue it goes further than that. Giving the Night King and his icy Weewees a human origin, necessisates them being silent. Once the writers gave them a human origin and therefore basically the same soundbox and vocal cords, having them use Skroth would be confusing to the viewer. For example, in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell, people begin to make non-human sounds and it immediately gives the viewer the impression they are possessed or mind controlled by an alien thing. And it might be alright for Star Wars to have all type of aliens speak English, but with the Weewees it would turn them into run-of-the-mill laughable villains.
But George did include a language and speech for them. And he may have a symbolic motivation for this beyond the physical. If you check out the essays of the chthonic cycle, you will find that being silent is one of George’s symbolic ways to indicate a character should be considered a dead man. For example Lady Stoneheart has her vocal chords cut, and at best can only whisper. Ned Stark’s ghoaler in the Black Cells reminds him to be silent. Hence, George’s wights do not speak, because they are dead-dead, despite being animated. Meanwhile talking Others makes them out to be actual living beings, rather than animated, though they are deadly for all other type of life.
All of this further confirms that D&D’s White Walkers are not George’s Others. D&D’s decisions to have White Walkers be silent fits the concept of human origin while preserving their menace. George’s Others speaking an entirely different language with inhuman sounds fits the concept of them being an entirely different species.
Now, let us inspect the actual appearance of the Others. Like Giants and Children of the Forest, the Others have a humanoid morphology and walk erect. What sets them apart from giants and the Children is how they seem to resemble the height of humans, albeit a tall one.
Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. (aGoT, Prologue)
They are also gaunt and their “flesh” is hard like bone and white as milk. This is quite corpse-like, and yet they are not. While this appearance in the prologue of aGoT does not exclude a potential human origin yet, Samwell’s observation about the Other that he kills in aSoS makes clear that the humanoid form is inhuman, in the sense that the Other is indeed another species and of non-human origin.
On [the horse’s] back was a rider pale as ice. […] The Other slid gracefully from the saddle to stand upon the snow. Sword-slim it was, and milky white. (aSoS, Samwell I)
Sam repeats their pale appearance, like ice and white milk. While Will calls them gaunt and tall, Sam instead refers to them as sword-thin. And when we combine both these descriptions, we do not picture humans anymore, but some elongated, thin humanoid figure, which is exactly what Marc Simonetti drew for his illustration of them in the World Book (left illustration).
George said to David Patterson, illustrator of aGoT, the Graphic Novel,
the Others “are strange, beautiful… think, oh… the Sidhe made of ice, something like that… a different sort of life… inhuman, elegant, dangerous.”
Some readers argue that inhuman has two meanings. We can read it to mean non-human or as cruel, callous and inhumane. But with George’s matching words of “a different sort of life” the devil is in the detail and one missing ‘e’. George uses the word inhuman thrice in the books and always to mean non-human: Harrenhal is of inhuman scale reminding Arya of Old Nan’s tales about giants, Sansa’s nightmare of being attacked has people wear monstrous inhuman masks, and Yandel’s World Book refers to the Children of the Forest as inhuman allies. No reader debates over the fact that giants and children of the forest are a different species, but many do about the Others.
To top this, George referenced them as being like the Sidhe, who in our own folklore tend to be pictured as tall, elongated, graceful, but dangerous non-humans going on their Wild Hunt: once again a different humanoid species. So, the Others are a type of Sidhe made of ice, or rather “something like that” (but not really ice). Certainly the description of how they move is George’s attempt to make the connection to Sidhe in the reader’s mind.
Will saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. Branches stirred gently in the wind, scratching at one another with wooden fingers. […] Perhaps it had only been a bird, a reflection on the snow, some trick of the moonlight. What had he seen, after all? […] A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. […] The Other slid forward on silent feet. […] They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … […] Behind [Royce], to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, the shifting patterns of their delicate armor making them all but invisible in the wood. Yet they made no move to interfere. […] The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. (aGoT, Prologue)
The wights had been slow clumsy things, but the Other was light as snow on the wind. (aSoS, Samwell I)
George could have stopped there, with the Others as icy Sidhe, or Tad Williams’ Norns. But why would he? His dwarfs are real humans. His elves are cat-eyed Children of the Forest. His manticores are insects. His unicorns are goatlike. His dragons have two legs. And his Giants are bearlike. None of his species of legends are a copy of how they are depicted in real world folklore, Middle Earth or even Osten Ard. He gives each his own unique twist.
A startling fact that Samwell notices about the Other and that Coldhands tells Bran is that the Others do not leave an impression on the snow when walking.
Its armor rippled and shifted as it moved, and its feet did not break the crust of the new-fallen snow. (aSoS, Samwell I)
“The white walkers go lightly on the snow,” the ranger said. “You’ll find no prints to mark their passage.” (aDwD, Bran II)
Samwell’s Other moves gracefully and it is so light-weighted that it does not break the snow beneath its feet. Floating and hover may befit a Sidhe of folklore and other fantasy series, but George does try to create species to still adhere to laws of physics. In other words, gravity is still working on this Other and it has mass.
If you thought George does not care about the laws of physics, let me remind you that he described the Other’s sword-thin shape as well as its inability to leave an impression on the snow in the same paragraph. Their shape is important for byouancy reasons. Think of objects of different types of density you put in a bucket of water. Some sink, some sink only halfway, others float on top. Density is not the sole determinant though. Steel and iron ships can float on water because of their buoyant shape. Given that Will called them tall, and Sam thinks of them as sword-thin, their shape is more comparable to an icicle dropping onto snow.
Furhtermore, George has the mountain clan men who allied with Stannis to save the Ned’s girl wearing snow shoes.
Many of the wolves donned curious footwear. Bear-paws, they called them, queer elongated things made with bent wood and leather strips. Lashed onto the bottoms of their boots, the things somehow allowed them to walk on top of the snow without breaking through the crust and sinking down to their thighs. (aDwD, The Wayward Bride)
Where humans have to wear these bear-paws, the Others do not. The Others do not have a buoyant shape and should leave an imprint in the snow according to the laws of pressure. And yet they do not. So, what is going on here?
The first reflex is to simply wave our hands at this and think “It’s magic.” And most likely it is. Nevertheless, as a thought experiment we considered whether this might be a hint to physical attributes of the Others. If it went nowhere and had no symbolical value and no textual back-up, we would have dropped it. Instead we came across a workable idea that answers a great deal and puts several other non-Other events in a coherent context. For our thought experiment, we played around with the idea that it might be a hint by George that the Others have a density* that is lighter than or equal to the snow they walk on.
* Yes, we recognize that no matter what density the Others have, they still have mass and that gravity and the laws of pressure would still have them leave footprints. Just bear with us for the moment and we will return to this issue, later on.
Theoretically, the Others are made of a substance that has a lighter density than fresh snow. And if they consist of entirely different compounds or elemental substance, then they would have a solid state at other temperatures than lifeforms typically have. What matter can they be made of, if it is not actually ice?
Snow’s density is between 0.1-0.8 g/cm³ (depending on atmospheric pressure), while the density of fresh water as a fluid is 1 g/cm³. The two substances with the lightest density are hydrogen and helium respectively, and both are the most prevalent elements in the universe. Another element we will explore is nitrogen as well as the molecule carbon monoxide.
0.145 g/cm3 (at mp)
0.0763 g/cm3 (solid)
0.808 g/cm3 (liquid at bp)
0.789 g/cm3, liquid (liquid)
(Melting point (mp)
0.95 °K (- 272.20 °C or -457.96 °F)
13.99 °K (−259.16 °C, −434.49 °F)
63.15 °K (-210 °C, -346 °F)
68.13 °K (−205.02 °C, −337.04 °)
Boiling point (bp)
4.222 °K (−268.928 °C , −452.070 °F)
20.271 °K (−252.879 °C, −423.182 °F)
77 °K (−195.795 °C, −320.431 °F)
81.6 °K (−191.5 °C, −312.7 °F)
Liquid helium has a density approximating the low end of snow’s scale. One of its possible advantages is that it cannot bind with any other element. It is colorless, tasteless, and inert. Helium is only a warming up exercise to our thought experiment; we do not actually think their body contains helium. When ionised, helium would emit an orange glow, which is unheard of in the tales and encounters with the Others. Instead the color we associate them with is the deep inhuman blue of their eyes.
Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. (aGoT, Prologue)
Helium’s name is derived from the ancient Greek name for the sun helios. And the Others shun the sun.
Samwell to Jon: “They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night … or else night falls when they emerge.” (aDwD, Jon II)
The old man [Tormund] glanced uneasily toward the trees in their white mantles. “They’re never far, you know. They won’t come out by day, not when that old sun’s shining, but don’t think that means they went away. Shadows never go away. Might be you don’t see them, but they’re always clinging to your heels.” (aDwD, Jon XII)
So, we can eliminate helium. Nevertheless, we can take away a potential idea out of it. Helium can only be a solid, less than 1° K off from the absolute zero point (-273.15 °C). It is called the absolute zero point, because it is the absolute minimal temperature in the universe – atoms stop moving and have zero kinetic energy, and once their kinetic energy is zero they cannot have any lower temperature. It is death of energy. So, symbolically this seems an idea that George might be after and why the Others “bring the cold” with them. If they are made of a substance that requires extreme low temperatures, in order for them to remain solid, it becomes reasonable (in a fantasy way) that they naturally lower the environmental temperature wherever they go following the laws of entropy. Their cold would cause low pressure pockets in the air, and thus snow cloud formation as well as mist (liquid formation of vapor). It explains why they can only ride dead animals, that end up covered in frost, or why Waymar Royce’s sword is covered with frost during his duel and why the cooled metal of the sword becomes brittle and ultimately breaks.
It was cold. Shivering, Will clung more tightly to his perch.[…] The wind had stopped. It was very cold. […] 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. (aGoT, Prologue)
[Waymar’s] blade was white with frost; […] “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy. When the blades touched, the steel shattered.A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. (aGoT, Prologue)
Ice caked his beard all around his mouth. […] He could hardly breathe. Had he gone to sleep? He got to his knees, and something wet and cold touched his nose. Chett looked up. Snow was falling. […] Chett got to his feet. His legs were stiff, and the falling snowflakes turned the distant torches to vague orange glows. He felt as though he were being attacked by a cloud of pale cold bugs. They settled on his shoulders, on his head, they flew at his nose and his eyes. Cursing, he brushed them off. […] The snow was falling so heavily that he got lost among the tents, but finally he spotted the snug little windbreak the fat boy had made for himself between a rock and the raven cages. (aSoS, Prologue)
A horse’s head emerged from the darkness. […] Hoarfrost covered it like a sheen of frozen sweat, and a nest of stiff black entrails dragged from its open belly. […] Finally only the dragonglass dagger remained, wreathed in steam as if it were alive and sweating. Grenn bent to scoop it up and flung it down again at once. “Mother, that’s cold.” (aSoS, Samwell I)
Varamyr woke suddenly, violently, his whole body shaking. “Get up,” a voice was screaming, “get up, we have to go. There are hundreds of them.” The snow had covered him with a stiff white blanket. So cold. When he tried to move, he found that his hand was frozen to the ground. He left some skin behind when he tore it loose. “Get up,” she screamed again, “they’re coming.” (aDwD, Prologue)
But the air was sharp and cold and full of fear. Even Summer was afraid. The fur on his neck was bristling. Shadows stretched against the hillside, black and hungry. All the trees were bowed and twisted by the weight of ice they carried. Some hardly looked like trees at all. Buried from root to crown in frozen snow, they huddled on the hill like giants, monstrous and misshapen creatures hunched against the icy wind. “They are here.” The ranger drew his longsword. […] “Can you feel the cold? There’s something here. Where are they?” (aDwD, Bran II)
“My tongue is too numb to tell. All I can taste is cold.”
“Cold?” Val laughed lightly. “No. When it is cold it will hurt to breathe. When the Others come …” (aDwD, Jon VIII)
If even a cold dead ranger like Coldhands can sense a drop in temperature, the Others do bring an extreme cold with him. Val too says the cold of the Others is lower even than winter’s tongue numbing cold – it will hurt to breathe, as Chett experiences at the Fist right before the attack in the prologue of aSoS.
Hydrogen comes close to the same principle of nearing the absolute zero point. Like helium it is colorless and tasteless but when ionised in an electrical field it could have the blueness of the ‘blood’ that Sam recognizes. Now, hydrogen is highly combustible and flammable when it comes into contact with air. But it requires a spark, heat or sunlight to explode. Spontaneous ignition requires 500° C (932° F). So, if the Others’ blood at least contains fluid hydrogen, then it is to be expected that they shun sunlight. This combustability of hydrogen however means that the material their swords and armor is made of is not pure hydrogen: Grenn’s torch does nothing except make a screeching sound.
Get away!” Grenn took a step, thrusting the torch out before him. “Away, or you burn.” He poked at it with the flames.
The Other’s sword gleamed with a faint blue glow. It moved toward Grenn, lightning quick, slashing. When the ice blue blade brushed the flames, a screech stabbed Sam’s ears sharp as a needle. The head of the torch tumbled sideways to vanish beneath a deep drift of snow, the fire snuffed out at once. And all Grenn held was a short wooden stick. He flung it at the Other, cursing, as Small Paul charged in with his axe. (aSoS, Samwell I)
Now, we’re getting “warmer”.(pun intended)
Another element you might think of is nitrogen. Nitrogen’s melting and boiling point is not as low as that of hydrogen and helium, but serves as deadly temperatures. It is slightly denser than hydrogen and helium, but still works for snow. As a gas or liquid it is colorless, and looks like plain water, but anyone who has ever been treated with nitrogen knows that it seems to evaporate in clear white fumes, as Sam describes the Other’s flesh does.
Nitrogen is a basic element in all life on the planet: amino acids (and thus proteins), DNA and RNA contain nitrogen. It is also part of the energy transfer processes within living beings. So, you would expect a lifeform to consist of nitrogen. In its pure form it binds with another nitrogen in a triple bond. After carbonmonoxide this is the strongest molecule bond and the reason why most of the nitrogen on and around earth is encountered in this form. As N2 it is deadly – inhaling it leads to asphyxiation. Hence scientist named it after the Greek word that means “to choke“. In my native language, Dutch, it is called stikstof (translated choke-matter). This should ring a bell as this is one of the two main and common ways the minions of the Others, the wights, attack a target: via strangulation. This standard wight MO of killing is also discussed in Craster’s Black Blooded Curse.
Ser Waymar Royce stood over him. His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye. The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw. […] Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold. (aGoT, Prologue)
When [Jon] opened his mouth to scream, the wight jammed its black corpse fingers into Jon’s mouth. Gagging, he tried to shove it off, but the dead man was too heavy. Its hand forced itself farther down his throat, icy cold, choking him. (aGoT, Jon VII)
[…] the wight’s black hands locked beneath his chins. Paul’s fingers were so cold they seemed to burn. They burrowed deep into the soft flesh of Sam’s throat. Run, Gilly, run, he wanted to scream, but when he opened his mouth only a choking sound emerged. (aSoS, Samwell III)
Since wights are the soldiers and weapons of the Others, it seems symbolically sound to have their MO match the ‘nature’ of the Others. Furthermore, not long after the element was discovered by Rutherford, Lavoisier suggested azote as an alternative name to nitrogen. This is another Greek based name that means “no life”.
98% of Pluto‘s surface is solid nitrogen ice. This dwarf planet of our solar system was named after the Greek god of the underworld and the dead, Pluto (an alternative name for Hades). Bingo!
A lifeform cannot be ‘fleshy’ without containing carbon, but those are not necessarily the same organic bonds as our own earth life has. After molecular hydrogen, carbon monoxoide is the second-most common molecule in space, and solid carbon monoxide is a component of comets. Haley’s comet for example consists 15% out of solid carbon monoxide. This is interesting when we consider that many readers have increasingly speculated that there was at least one impact event of either a meteorite or a comet in the history of Planetos. Yes, this is mostly linked with the coming of the dragons around the time of the Breaking of the arm of Dorne, and that they may have come into being as a result of exogenesis, but surely this might also be the source of the lifeform we know as Others at a prior impact even.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a killer gas. Without the ancient Greeks knowing the actual mechanism of death, they used to execute people by shutting them in bathing rooms with smoldering coals. Nazis used it on a large scale during the Holocaust at some extermination camps. It kills life that relies on hemoglobin to transport oxygen via the bloodstream to the various organs, because carbon monoxide is able to bind with hemoglobin as well. In fact, the affinity of hemoglobin to carbon monoxide is 230 times larger than that of oxygen. So, given the chance, the hemoglobin will prefer to bind with carbon monoxide over oxygen. Except, once bound as carboxyhemoglobin the blood cannot release the oxygen to tissue anymore and causes tissue damage. Carbon monoxide poisoning is deadly. And since it is an odorless, colorless gass people are rarely aware they are breathing a deadly gas, instead of air.
The first symptoms of such a poisoning can easily be mistaken with the flue – headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. In other words you would feel sick at your bowels. Hmmm, the second area that wights target when they attack are the bowels.
The other wight, the one-handed thing that had once been a ranger named Jafer Flowers, had also been destroyed, cut near to pieces by a dozen swords … but not before it had slain Ser Jaremy Rykker and four other men. Ser Jaremy had finished the job of hacking its head off, yet had died all the same when the headless corpse pulled his own dagger from its sheath and buried it in his bowels. (aGoT, Jon VIII)
Something grabbed hold of him. That was when his shout became a scream. Bran filled a fist with snow and threw it, but the wight did not so much as blink. A black hand fumbled at his face, another at his belly. Its fingers felt like iron. He’s going to pull my guts out. (aDwD, Bran II)
Another symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning is how it turns the blood a cherry red: hemoglobin acquires a bright red color when converted into carboxyhemoglobin. This is not so easily visible with a living person suffering from this type of poisoning, but someone who died of carbon monoxide poisoning will look lifelike becacuse of this. Whereas normally an unenbalmed dead person looks bluish and pale. The food industry thus uses carbon monoxide to give meat a healthy looking red color. Now in aGoT’s prologue Will notes a particular bright red color when Waymar is first injured, as red as fire. Blood is not that bright usually, not even the normally oxygenated blood of a vein.
Then Royce’s parry came a beat too late. The pale sword bit through the ringmail beneath his arm. The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow. Ser Waymar’s fingers brushed his side. His moleskin glove came away soaked with red. (aGoT, Prologue)
At the very least, we should investigate whether the sword may be actually crafted from frozen carbon monoxide and methane. In an interview by Robert Shaw after the publication of a Storm of Swords, George says the following about the swords of the Others.
Shaw: Do you know what substance an Other sword is made from. Martin: Ice. But not like regular old ice. The Others can do things with ice that we can’t imagine and make substances of it.
He at least confirmed that it is not like regular ice, but some other kind of substance. If it was made of carbonmonoxide though that would explain its ghostly blue glow or shimmer, its crystalline appearance, yet still reminding us of ice.
In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent,a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor. […] the Other’s [sword] danced with pale blue light. (aGoT, Prologue)
The Other’s sword gleamed with a faint blue glow. […] It slid away from Paul’s axe, armor rippling, and its crystal sword twisted and spun and slipped between the iron rings of Paul’s mail, through leather and wool and bone and flesh. It came out his back with a hissssssssssss and Sam heard Paul say, “Oh,” as he lost the axe. Impaled, his blood smoking around the sword, the big man tried to reach his killer with his hands and almost had before he fell. The weight of him tore the strange pale sword from the Other’s grip. (aSoS, Samwell I)
Both methane and carbonmonoxide form a crystalline structure when solid. And methane even has an interesting intermediate solid state called a plastic crystal before being frozen into a solid crystal. As a plastic crystal it would be malleable and thus be shaped at will.
Now the top illustration of this essay is a picture of Pluto backlit by the sun by New Horizons of NASA taken in 2016, so you can see its atmosphere clearly, which has a ghostly pale blueish appearance, exactly as the swords have been described by George. He could not have known from imagery that Pluto’s atmosphere would have looked like this during the writing of any of the books, but he could have guessed it correctly. When carbonmonoxide is in the presence of oxygen (including atmospheric concentrations) it burns with a blue flame. The actual science behind Pluto’s blue atmospheric haze is not due to carbonmonoxide burning, but scattering of light as it hits particles of near 10 nm in its asmophere consisting of majorly nitrogen, methane and carbonmonoxide. But in 1993 scientists already knew the composition of Pluto’s surface. Since nitrogen would only be seen as white fumes when evaporating that would have left George to speculate that carbonmonoxide would be the sole color potential. Hence we have a blue-flaming sword that causes people to bleed bright red.
For an interesting read on what life possibilities there are on cold or hot planets, FictionIsntReal provided this link of Isaac Asimov’s speculations. Certainly in several of his sci-fi stories George has shown to have some basic idea about the biochemical make-up of potential lifeforms in extremely different circumstances than our own. For instance, in Nighflyers of 1980 we have this scene.
“Jupiter,” the xenotech announced loudly, “is a gas giant in the same solar system as Old Earth. Didn’t know that, did you?” […] “Listen, I’m talking to you. They were on the verge of exploring this Jupiter when the stardrive was discovered, oh, way back. After that, course, no one bothered with gas giants. Just slip into drive and find the habitable worlds, settle them, ignore the comets and the rocks and the gas giants—there’s another star just a few light years away, and it has more habitable planets. But there were people who thought those Jupiters might have life, you know. Do you see?” […]
Christopheris looked annoyed. “If there is intelligent life on the gas giants, it shows no interest in leaving them,” he snapped. “All of the sentient species we have met up to now have originated on worlds similar to Earth, and most of them are oxygen breathers. Unless you’re suggesting that the volcryn are from a gas giant?”
The xenotech pushed herself up to a sitting position and smiled conspiratorially. “Not the volcryn,” she said. “Royd Eris. Crack that forward bulkhead in the lounge, and watch the methane and ammonia come smoking out.” Her hand made a sensuous waving motion through the air, and she convulsed with giddy laughter. (Nightflyers)
And in The Plague Star of Tuf Voyaging, George includes a silicone rock-like spider.
There was a black blob of some sort, floating in the air ahead of him. […] The dark blob was small and round, barely the size of a man’s fist. Nevis kept about a meter’s distance from it, and studied it. Another creature – as damned ugly as the one that had dined on Jefru Lion too, but weirder. It was brown and lumpy, and its hide looked like it was made of rocks. It looked almost like it was a rock, in fact; Nevis only knew it was alive because it had a mouth – a wet black hole in the rocky skin. Inside, the mouth was all moist and green and moving, and he could make out teeth, or what looked like teeth, except they looked metallic. He thought he saw a triple set of them, half-concealed by rubbery green flesh that pulsed slowly, steadily.
The weirdest thing was how incredibly still it was. At first, Nevis thought it was hovering in the air somehow. But then he came a little closer and saw that he’d been wrong. It was suspended in the center of an incredibly fine web, the strands so very thin they were all but invisible. In fact, the ends of them were invisible. Nevis could make out the thickest parts near the nexus where the creature sat pulsing, but the webbing seemed to get thinner and thinner as it spread, and you couldn’t see where it attached to wall or floor or ceiling at all, no matter how hard you looked.
A spider, then. A weird one. The rocky appearance made him think it was some kind of silicon-based life. He’d heard of that, here and there. It was real god-damned rare. So he had some kind of silicon-spider here. Big deal. (Tuf Voyaging, The Plague Star, 1985)
George never goes into a scientific essay on these other-type-of-lifeforms even in his sci-fi. He is not a biochemist like Asimov, nor a physicist, and he will not write a story-debate about the boiling temperature of water in vacuum as Asimov. But he does know his Asimov. And in a fantasy series he does not even have to elaborate on the biochemistry of a species, since that world does not even have characters that are biochemists. However, that does not mean that George has no preconceived concept of what the Others are chemically. Unlike our sciency-like thought experiment, George does not have to reverse-engineer it. He is the gardener god who decides and sprinkle hints without us having a clue. You may think, “Yeah, that’s all well and good, but that’s sci-fi and this is fantasy!” Except George fudges the genre lines, mixes genres, and (re)uses his prior material, including ideas from sci-fi short stories often. Nor does he care about “definitions” of what is proper fantasy and proper sci-fi. Here is a summary of George’s own introduction words on the matter in Dreamsongs Part 2. We will pick out the most important quotes in answer to the “But it’s fantasy!” argument.
Motor cars or horses, tricorns or togas, ray-guns or six-shooters, none of it matters, so long as the people remain. Sometimes we get so busy drawing boundaries and making labels that we lose track of that truth. Casablanca put it most succinctly. ‘It’s till the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.’ […] We can make up all the definitions of science fiction and fantasy and horror that we want. We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s still the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself. The rest, my friends, is furniture. […] The Furniture Rule, I call it. Forget the definitions. Furniture Rules. (George RR Martin, introduction of the “heart in conflict” section of part 2 of Dreamsongs)
The point is that horror, sci-fi ideas and the fantastical have all fused in George’s minds, and to him it’s all ‘weird stuff’. He has read and written all of these stories with their typical appropriate furniture. But they eventually all fuse in some way. His space stories involve horror. His fantasy is grounded and riddled with suggestion of interbreeding and alien stuff and maesters studying the high iron content of dragon bones. But the horror as part of the story is always present, as fear is one damn good human emotion.
Which brings us close to the next section of this essay. Something may have jumped out at you in that description of the silicone-spider: it appeared to hover. It did not actually hover, but it only appeared to do so. It hovered, because the web is actually physically attached to the silicone spider and its threads get so nano-thin that the ends of the web are invisible to the naked eye. The seed ship that cloned this silicone lifeform from its database as a biological defense mechanism against unwanted intruders names it a ‘walking web’. (Hey a WW!) It does walk, and when it does, the invisible ends of the web leave tiny holes in the metal walls of the hallways of the ship. And this provides alternative ways than ‘It’s magic!’ on why the Others do not leave visible footsteps in the fresh snow. Maybe they have invisible webbing beneath their feet that work like bear-paws. Maybe they can alter their solid status into that of a plasma or even gas when they approach. We do not know.
Another glaring notion is the fact that these walking webs are spiders, and the Others are legendary linked to a spider species – Ice Spiders.
Not all lifeforms are dependant on hemoglobin. For example photosinthezising plants, such as trees, are not affected by carbon monoxide. And certain animal families rely on hemocyanin instead to bind oxygen. These are molluscs (snails), crustaceans and arthropods. Hemoglobin is more efficient than hemocyanin in normal conditions for oxygen transportation with blood, which is why every vertebrate uses this type of bloodcell. But in cold environments with low oxygen pressure, the hemocyanin method is the most efficient. One of the crucial differences between hemoglobin and hemocyanin is the metal atom the proteins are bound with. Hemoglobin is bound with iron and locked in a bloodcell, giving the cell its characteristic red color. Hemocyanin proteins are bound with two copper atoms, however, and flow freely in the ‘blood’ unbound to a cell. The copper makes the hemocyanin molecule in the hemolymph fluid look blue! Creatures that thus rely on hemocyanin are “blue blooded“, though the fluid is not considered to be true blood.
This explains why the protein is called cyanin. It derives of the word cyan, which is a blue-green hue and the word means aqua or water in Ancient Greek. This blue color is exactly what Samwell notices to be the color of the Other’s blood when he kills him. (painkillerjane69 pointed this out two years ago in a comment of the Varys essay, the Silk Route; @ixchelayida on twitter.. Thank you.)
And then [Sam] was stumbling forward, falling more than running, really, closing his eyes and shoving the dagger blindly out before him with both hands. He heard a crack, like the sound ice makes when it breaks beneath a man’s foot, and then a screech so shrill and sharp that he went staggering backward with his hands over his muffled ears, and fell hard on his arse.
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. Grenn bent to scoop it up and flung it down again at once. “Mother, that’s cold.”
“Obsidian.” Sam struggled to his knees. “Dragonglass, they call it. Dragonglass. Dragon glass.” He giggled, and cried, and doubled over to heave his courage out onto the snow. (aSoS, Samwell I)
Notice how its milk-white flesh and bones melt and evaporate into a fine white mist. This effect suggests that our guess about nitrogen may be right. What the dragonglass basically seemed to do here is break the magic that enables the Others to maintain their ultracold temperature to keep gases such as those of Pluto in a solid state. However, once they are incapable of doing that, the environmental temperature would quickly liquidify and boil the substances, so that they react with one another and the environment to form water.
And having this or a similar type of blue blood might actually be the reason why they hate iron.
Old Nan nodded. “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.” (aGoT, Bran IV)
Yes, the fact that George compared them to Sithe, and the Sithe usually hate iron in folklore, might be enough reason. And yet, Waymar’s steel (containing iron) was futile against the Other he fought. The Other was wary at first, but over time seemed persuaded that Royce’s blade could not harm him. Notice how in Old Nan’s quote this purported hatred of iron is in the same line as hating hot blood of people who can endure the sun and the warmth of fire. It is weird that Old Nan asserts the Others hate iron, when the metal that the First Men wielded before the coming of the Andals and thus during the Long Night was bronze. The sole iron that the First Men could have wielded were weapons crafted from an iron-nickel-meteor. It is unlikely that there were many of those going around. So, either Old Nan does not know what she is talking about (and that is unlikely – though she’s wrong about giants), or she is right. And if she is right, then the sole iron that the Others could hate is the iron in the hemoglobin of red hot blood. And as beings relying on hemocyanin (or something akin to it), their preferred habitat would be cold, darkness and around copper.
Now, you might argue that plain iced water or hydrogen may serve for the blood of the Others, but there is some serious issue with both of them. Water cannot remain a fluid under the extremely cold body temperatures that the Others evidently must maintain. Once you straightforwardly introduce oxygen to liquified hydrogen you either end up having water that will freeze or a potential combustion of the hydrogen if it is gaseous. And to force the hydrogen to release the oxygen to tissue you require electrolysis. Therefore, hydrogen cannot be used directly to bind with oxygen. Something else, inside the liquid stream of hydrogen needs to bind with oxygen – the hemocyanin.
The biggest hint that George gives us to consider this type of blood system are the ice spiders, for most spiders use this oxygen transport method, of which the tarantula is a typical example mentioned for this.
“One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—” (aGoT, Bran IV)
Yet there are other tales—harder to credit and yet more central to the old histories—about creatures known as the Others. According to these tales, they came from the frozen Land of Always Winter, bringing the cold and darkness with them as they sought to extinguish all light and warmth. The tales go on to say they rode monstrous ice spiders and the horses of the dead, resurrected to serve them, just as they resurrected dead men to fight on their behalf. (tWoIaF – Ancient History: The Long Night)
Spiders and other exoskeletal species can use hemocyanin, because their respitory system does not need to rely on hemoglobin to exchange oxygen for carbondioxide as vertebrates do. Insects and arachnids exchange oxygen for carbondioxide in the separate trachea system of the book lungs. All their “blood” needs to do is spread the oxygen to tissue. Since hemocyanin is reluctant to bind with oxygen, it therefore will easily release it, even if bound as carbonmonoxide.
And since both spider and Others have hemolymph for blood, George mentioned the ice spiders as a direct parallel to the operational body functions of the Others in aGoT. George reinforces this link of the Others and Ice Spiders through both Lord Varys, the Qartheen and the Undying. In what follows we discuss some of George’s spiders and some of the most relevant summarized anologies.
Varys the Spider
Silk-wearing Varys was explored in detail in the essays for both the mythological spider introduction and the silk route. However, there the focus lay heavily on leukism. Here we will focus on the physical aspects of spiders that are far more relevant for the Others’ nature. There is his glaring story on how he he became a eunuch in Myr.
“I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)
Here, George linked Varys the Spider to a blue flame and a language he did not understand. Many readers have speculated whether this blue flame and voice may be related to the Others. We do not know. But at the very least George set up a parallel here between spiders and the substance that causes flames to turn blue – carbonmonoxide – and some force or being that speaks a strange language.
Twice George has Varys squeal and moan about the sight of his own blood, when he cuts himself to a Valyrian dagger – or should we say dragonsteel, the potential steel that could harm an Other? – and when Jaime nicks his throat (Samwell stuck the dragonstone dagger into the Other’s throat). Despite being metaphorically blue-blooded, Varys is still human and thus his blood is red, containing hemoglobin with iron. One could say that Varys hates the sight of iron.
Varys lifted the knife with exaggerated delicacy and ran a thumb along its edge. Blood welled, and he let out a squeal and dropped the dagger back on the table. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)
“Yes . . . well . . . if you would . . . remove the blade . . . yes, gently, as it please my lord, gently, oh, I’m pricked . . .” The eunuch touched his neck and gaped at the blood on his fingers. “I have always abhorred the sight of my own blood.” (aFfC, Jaime I)
In the Silk Route essay about Varys it was argued how Kevan’s observations prove that Varys is truly pale-faced beneath his usual powder, for Kevan’s assumption that Varys is wearing powder on his hands in the epilogue is wrong. As smart as Varys is, he would not touch the crossbow he uses to make Cersei suspect the Tyrells or Tyrion of the murder on Kevan Lannister with powdered hands. It would leave traceable evidence to him on the crossbow. And this paleness of course is yet another thing that Varys has in common with the Others. Further indications lead us to believe that Varys prefers to shun the sun of a potential condition called leukism.
Another possible hint towards a parallel for Varys with the Others is how he tends to wear lavender as both color and perfume. Varys is the sole character associated with lavender in particular actually. Historically, people believed lavender warded against the black plague, and thus this flower became heavily associated to gravesites (corpses and the dead). Ned Stark alludes to this association for Varys when he thinks Varys smells as foul and sweet as flowers on a grave.
The purple dyes he wears are begotten through sea snails, either from Braavos or Tyrosh. Tyrion compares him to a cold and slimy slug. Snails also use hemocyanin to transport oxygen instead of hemoglobin, exactly like spiders.
Varys is often featured in poison plots, which seems to fit as some spiders inject venom to paralize their prey. In the conversation that Arya happens to spy upon between Varys and Illyrio in aGoT, the latter suggests Varys could get rid of Ned Stark the Hand as he has dealt with another Hand before. Certainly upon first read of the books, most readers suspect Illyrio believes that Varys killed Jon Arryn. Pycelle suggests to Ned Stark that it may have been Varys who possibly poisoned Jon Arynn.
“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon.”
Pycelle stroked his beard thoughtfully. “It is said. Women, cravens … and eunuchs.” He cleared his throat and spat a thick glob of phlegm onto the rushes. Above them, a raven cawed loudly in the rookery. “The Lord Varys was born a slave in Lys, did you know? Put not your trust in spiders, my lord.” (aGoT, Eddard V)
Of course, we learn in aSoS, that Lysa Arryn poisoned Jon Arryn at Littlefinger’s suggestion to then accuse the Lannisters of the crime in a secret letter to Ned and Catelyn. Pycelle points the finger at Varys, not because he actually suspects Varys, but hopes to steer any suspicion away from Cersei Lannister. The sole actual poison plot that Varys had a role in during the series is his proposal to use the Tears of Lys for Dany.
“By now, the princess nears Vaes Dothrak, where it is death to draw a blade. […]” He stroked a powdered cheek. “Now, poison … the tears of Lys, let us say. Khal Drogo need never know it was not a natural death.” (aGoT, Eddard VIII)
But even in that plot, which he has executed, he also has Illlyrio send the remedy – a letter to Jorah Mormont to warn him of the intended assassination. It seems unspider-like for Varys, to never actually use poison, except in George’s short story of 1974 This Tower of Ashes the male of the spider species in that story has no venom, only a deadly bite.
Lady Lysa Arryn
In the series of aSoIaF, it are the female ice spiders who do the poisoning. With the Jon Arryn plot that was Lysa, who ended up a jumping ice spider widow (though she did not jump voluntarily).
[Catelyn’s] sister was two years the younger, yet she looked older now. Shorter than Catelyn, Lysa had grown thick of body, pale and puffy of face. She had the blue eyes of the Tullys, but hers were pale and watery, never still. (aGoT, Catelyn VI)
Lysa, freshly scrubbed and garbed in cream velvet with a rope of sapphires and moonstones around her milk-white neck, was holding court on the terrace overlooking the scene of the combat, surrounded by her knights, retainers, and lords high and low. Most of them still hoped to wed her, bed her, and rule the Vale of Arryn by her side. From what Catelyn had seen during her stay at the Eyrie, it was a vain hope. (aGoT, Catelyn VII)
Lysa changed since Catelyn last saw her sister. She has grown pale, bloated and her eyes are now a pale watery blue. Her graceful figure has become a bloated belly, reminding us of Shelob. She wears cream (white) or blue velvets, reminding us of the larger types of spiders with velvet furry hair. She wears jewelry that remind us of the sapphire blue eyes of the Others or linked to milk-white and icy moons, amidst blue veined marble and blue silk.
The High Hall of the Arryns was long and austere, with a forbidding coldness to its walls of blue-veined white marble, but the faces around him had been colder by far. (aGoT, Tyrion V)
Sansa walked down the blue silk carpet between rows of fluted pillars slim as lances. The floors and walls of the High Hall were made of milk-white marble veined with blue. Shafts of pale daylight slanted down through narrow arched windows along the eastern wall. Between the windows were torches, mounted in high iron sconces, but none of them was lit. Her footsteps fell softly on the carpet. Outside the wind blew cold and lonely. Amidst so much white marble even the sunlight looked chilly, somehow . . . though not half so chilly as her aunt. Lady Lysa had dressed in a gown of cream-colored velvet and a necklace of sapphires and moon-stones. (aSoS, Sansa VII)
Should we remind you of the Tully colours, red and blue? Where initially, Lysa lived south, red and hot blooded, she became icy pale blue blooded and is only featured as such in the Eyrie. On the other hand, Catelyn lived in the icy North for over a decade, growing more like Northerners than she even suspected, but ends up as the fiery Fire wight Lady Stoneheart.
The Milk-Men of Qarth
The same Silk Route essay investigated Qarth and uncovered parallels between Xaro, Qarth, the Qaathi and Varys, and ultimately the tall white spiders and the Others. The Qaathi and descendant Qartheen are tall and pale. The Dothraki refer to them as milk men. The men wear beaded silk skirts, which remind of spider silk glands. While the city has plazas and seems airy, it is mostly reminiscint of an Italian city where the citizens can shun the sun, and children wear colorful sunblock covering their skin.
The Qartheen are descendants of the prior Qaathi kingdom, with Qarth the sole remaining remnant. Dany visits and rests at one of the former Qaathi cities Vaes Tolorro, which means ‘City of Bones‘ in the Red Waste. It is chalk white and compared to be as pale as the moon. It also is a maze of narrow alleys and the houses are windowless, indicating the Qaathi shunned the sun. Another Qaathi city that Dany did not visit was once called Qolahn. The Dothraki renamed it Vaes Qosar or ‘City of Spiders‘.
Where Ned Stark believed Varys to wear perfume to mask a foul smell, Jorah Mormont expresses a similar sentiment for the entire city of Qarth.
“I would not linger here long, my queen. I mislike the very smell of this place.”
Dany smiled. “Perhaps it’s the camels you’re smelling. The Qartheen themselves seem sweet enough to my nose.”
“Sweet smells are sometimes used to cover foul ones.” (aCoK, Danaerys III)
In this city of splendors, Dany had expected the House of the Undying Ones to be the most splendid of all, but she emerged from her palanquin to behold a grey and ancient ruin. Long and low, without towers or windows, it coiled like a stone serpent through a grove of black-barked trees whose inky blue leaves made the stuff of the sorcerous drink the Qartheen called shade of the evening. No other buildings stood near. Black tiles covered the palace roof, many fallen or broken; the mortar between the stones was dry and crumbling. She understood now why Xaro Xhoan Daxos called it the Palace of Dust. Even Drogon seemed disquieted by the sight of it. The black dragon hissed, smoke seeping out between his sharp teeth.
It is important here to note that there are NO towers here, nor windows. Towers are basically the stone equivalent to trees. However, the maze is built in a grove, like spiders use branches to weave a web, but the maze itself is not part of the trees. Nevertheless, the dream poison that the warlocks use is made of trees with inky blue leaves and black bark. The blue (!) drink is called the Shade of the Evening. Since Others are also called shadows and only operate when the sun is gone, you could call theOthers “Shades of the Evening”.
The trees remind many a reader of the weirwoods, and thus many readers suspect the Qartheen trees may be some corrupted version. We will not go that far. We will point out that the color of the leaves fit a certain blood color. Blue for spider types and red for the CotF and any other mammal. Weirwoods have red leaves and bleed red treesap, representing red blood and the red fire of iron. So, these trees are each other’s opposites, as much as spiderblood and fireblood are.
Since we mention tree leaves being the color of blood, you may wonder “Well, what about trees with golden leaves?” (Ser Jaemes, Knight of the Broken Hearted asked)
For half a moon, they rode through the Forest of Qohor, where the leaves made a golden canopy high above them, and the trunks of the trees were as wide as city gates. There were great elk in that wood, and spotted tigers, and lemurs with silver fur and huge purple eyes, but all fled before the approach of the khalasar and Dany got no glimpse of them. (aGoT, Danaerys III)
Notice that it is in this forest that the Little Valyrians live – lemurs with silver fur and purple eyes. And in Dany’s very first chapter, we learn that both Viserys and her consider their blood to be golden blood.
The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of old Valyria, the blood of the dragon. Dragons did not mate with the beasts of the field, and Targaryens did not mingle their blood with that of lesser men. (aGoT, Danaerys I)
More, there is a bloodtype amongst real world humans that goes by the name of “golden blood” too. You probably know the following human blood types for transfusion: A, B, AB or O. These are the labels of the antigen protein on the outside of the red bloodcell (hemoglobin) that identify the type to our guardian white bloodcells. For example, if you have bloodtype A and you get a transfusion of bloodtype B, those white bloodcells will attack the B bloodtype. AB blood has both antigens, and O-blood has neither. On top of that, bloodcells also carry the antigen RhD protein. People who have it are +, those who do not are -. Because of this people with O negative blood are considered universal donors for the other seven types. With no A, no B and no RhD white bloodcells will never flag attack on it. But this oversimplifies the RhD. There are 61 potential proteins for the RhD system. Golden blood is Rh-null blood: it does not have any of the 61 Rh-proteins and can be used as universal donor for other people with rare Rh-blood. Until 1961 scientists believed an embryo would die in utero if it had such a bloodtype. But then an Aboriginal Australian woman was identified to have it. It is so rare, that only 43 people on the globe are known to have it at present. So it is worth its weight in gold. The problem for Rh-null bloodtypes is that they must be their own blood-donor.
So, when George likens Targaryen blood to golden blood that must be preserved and only cautiously shared, he borrows from this real world meaning. And he associated Valyrians via the lemurs with a forest of a golden canopy. But there are other golden trees, such as the Goldenheart tree of the Summer Islands. Their bows are made of this wood, but it only grows on two of the islands and to export it is forbidden by the princes of the Summer Islands. Lemurs can also be found on the Summer Islands, though we do not know what they look like. Are the Summer Islanders, golden blooded? Perhaps not. But those we meet may be considered golden hearted.
This brings is us to the heart of the matter: pale blue lipped Pyat Pree and the Undying. The name for the Undying makes for an excellent parallel to the Others too. Others do not die, unless wounded by dragonstone or -steel. We jump right ahead to Dany’s actual meeting with the real Undying ones.
Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet-blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body. One withered breast was left bare in the Qartheen manner, to show a pointed blue nipple hard as leather. She is not breathing. Dany listened to the silence. None of them are breathing, and they do not move, and those eyes see nothing. Could it be that the Undying Ones were dead? (aCoK, Danaerys IV)
The Undying are blue, nor do they breathe. They do not require much oxygen. And now we come to the heart of the parallel that George set up between Qarth, Varys and the Ice Spiders of the Others.
Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive. It beat, a deep ponderous throb of sound, and each pulse sent out a wash of indigo light. The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows. As Dany walked to the empty chair at the foot of the table, they did not stir, nor speak, nor turn to face her. There was no sound but the slow, deep beat of the rotting heart.
Red hearts (and a body depending on hemoglobin in the blood) pump oxygen- and iron-rich blood out to the rest of the body through sealed veins, and then after oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide, the blood is sucked back into the heart via the arteries. It is a closed circulatory system. This Undying heart does no such thing. It only pumps copper-rich and oxygen-poor hemolymph freely out into the room. None of the blood is sucked back in. This is an open circulatory system, and it is exactly how a spider heart operates. Hemolymph fluid is a combination of both hemocyanin and the other fluids. It is pumped out by the heart freely without the body having an ability to send or guide it to a particular area. The fluid fills all the interior of the blood holding body and surrounds all cells. And only when the heart relaxes the “blood” will settle back in the heart via open ended pores (rather osmotic).
The spider heart is situated at the top of the body, above the digestive system. Compare this with George’s idea of a heart of the Undying floating above and a paralised Dany being the meal about to be digested by the Undying.
[…] a scream of fury cut the indigo air, and suddenly the visions were gone, ripped away, and Dany’s gasp turned to horror. The Undying were all around her, blue and cold, whispering as they reached for her, pulling, stroking, tugging at her clothes, touching her with their dry cold hands, twining their fingers through her hair. All the strength had left her limbs. She could not move. Even her heart had ceased to beat. She felt a hand on her bare breast, twisting her nipple. Teeth found the soft skin of her throat. A mouth descended on one eye, licking, sucking, biting . . .Then indigo turned to orange, and whispers turned to screams. (aCoK, Danaerys IV)
George wrote the Undying as behaving as well as internally survive like a spider. The Undying here are not the Others, nor do they operate on behalf of them, just themselves. But they serve as a parallel to the biological hemolymph nature of the Others.
In the 1974 This Tower of Ashes (a reading on youtube by Kerby Hayborn) we find a proto-version of what was about to befall Dany in the House of the Undying. Self-exiled John Bowen survives on a colonized planet by hunting for the poison of dreamspiders in the forest. The poison is used as an illegal dream drug in the city of Port Jameson. These white jumping spiders are nocturnal, dangerous predators. The strands of their web are as thick as a finger or a cable. Larger webs can cross an entire chasm. Instead of eating the males, the females mate for life with a male in a specialised partnership. The male – approximating the size of a large pumpkin – spins the web and guards the catches. He has no venom, but a bite dangerous and sizeable enough to kill. The female – the size of a fist – prowls in the trees and jumps down from the canopy to inject her prey with venom, before taking them to cache in the web. The poison causes dreams and feelings of ecstacy and John Bowen imagines that the prey probably enjoys it all because of the poison’s effect, even if it was eaten alive.
Upon first read, the short story may be confusing. John Bowen misremembers several events wrongly, and his cat Squirrel turns out to be a white eight legged creature, even though we got a full description of color and type of tail far earlier. In between, John tells us the story of an incident with dreamspiders, which he appears to have survived despite being stung in the neck by a female dreamspider of unsafe size. Upon further reading, and if you as reader are brave enough to face the horror, you realize that John Bowen is kept alive and being eaten by a dreamspider since the start of the short story. He is paralized and hallucinating fantastical ego-boosting visions and memories because of the effect the venom has, while being nibbled at. He simply never realizes it, nor does he want to, for to face the reality of what is happening to him is too horrific. Nearly the same thing happened to Dany.
Ten thousand slaves lifted bloodstained hands as she raced by on her silver, riding like the wind. “Mother!” they cried. “Mother, mother!” They were reaching for her, touching her, tugging at her cloak, the hem of her skirt, her foot, her leg, her breast. They wanted her, needed her, the fire, the life, and Dany gasped and opened her arms to give herself to them . . . (aCoK, Danaerys IV)
The difference is that John Bowen is doomed, while Dany is saved by Drogon, whose bones are abnormally rich with iron. He attacks the Undying heart and saves Dany from being a spidermeal. Interesting in the proto-version is that John actually saw a large winged unknown creature right before the incident, except it cannot help him because it was already caught in the web.
Crowfood’s Daughter has indepedently and simultaneously been working on the blood biology side of dragons. Tyrion reads how dragonbones are black because of its high iron content. In a twitter thread she speculated that if the bones are rich with iron then likely so is their dragonblood, for the primary site for the creation of bloodcells and hemoglobin is within the bonemarrow. As a consequence dragon’s blood will have a very high concentration of oxygen. In high concentrations, oxygen is flammable. So, Crowfood’s Daughter has come across the opposite principle for the fire side. It is all about the blood, or rather the difference between a blood circulation system like that of a spider for the ice side or like that of superhemoglobin for the fire side.
The Spiderblood versus Dragonblood dichotomy is repeated on a racial scale for the Qaathi in the World Book. Before the Dothraki came and destroyed all of their city states, but one, the Qaathi warred with the Sarnori or the Tagaez Fen (or Tall Men). They are tall, brown of skin and have hair and eyes as dark as the night. They are linked to the Qaathi because they are tall and wear spider silk, not as allies but as enemies of Spiderblood. They are said to have ridden coal-black mares and bloodred horses. In the Silk Route essay it is noted that the color combination of these horses matches the Targaryen sigil of black and red, as well as the Targaryen words, “Fire and Blood”. The Sarnori therefore represent a variation of the Dragonblood side, having the dark pigment related to iron and thus iron-rich hemogoblin. But in order to avoid mistakes, we shall call them Fireblooded. For a long time, the Fireblood won, pushing the Spiderblooded Qaathi out of the Grasslands, south into what become the Red Waste. But then the Dothraki arrived and destroyed every Sarnori city-state save one – Saath – during the Century of Blood as well as the later Qaathi cities in the Red Waste save one – Qarth.
Far in the north of Essos, Saath is held on life support by the Ibbinese and Lorath. The Fireblood side does not fare well in the cold and icy north, for their circulatory system is malladapted to it. Meanwhile the descendants of the Qaathi, the Spiderblood side of this Essosi tale, managed to survive the desert that is the Red Waste and thrive in Qarth, despite the hot climate and the sun, using archictectural tricks and sunblock to remain cool and out of the sun, exactly as real world spiders manage. Despite the fact that the hemocyanin system is more efficient in a cold oxygen-poor environment, spiders can be found in deserts and tropical climates.
This war between Spiderblood and Fireblood at the Grasslands is not the first of them. The world book also tells of the lost city Lyber, prior to the Sarnori-Qaathi wars. In that city acolytes of a spider goddess and a serpent god fought an endless bloody war. Once again Ice versus Fire, represented as Spider versus Serpent (or Wyrm, Wyvern and eventually Dragon). The surprise here is how the spiderside has a goddess, instead of a god. Most of these spider parallels we have seen so far are littered with people and creatures that are male, not female. Only one female Undying was truly described to us for example. The only near equivalent to a conceptual spider goddess that we have is Night’s King wife – the Corpse Queen.
The World Book claims the Corpse Queen was a sorceress and pale as a corpse. This does not mean she was in fact a corpse. It simply links her to a Spiderblooded type. She is said to have possessed sorcery and since she was a Corpse Queen, this sorcery potentially may have been her ability to raise and command the dead as wights. In order to do this, she must have been like the Others. And in Old Nan’s tale to Bran, she is described as having skin as white as the moon, eyes like blue stars and skin as cold as ice. If this is true, she was in fact an Other.
In GRRM’s 1973 Slide Show (transcribed on Fattest Leech’s blog), Becker is a funds recruiter for SPACE starcruisers. He was once a commander on the Starwind exploring other planetary constellations, but was ‘demoted’ to raise funds for the exploring programs instead by depicting slideshows of some of the discoveries, including those he was part of. One of those planets dubbed Anthill is where humanity made their first contact with another sentient race, the spiderants, who “grow” cities (rather than build) from some type of plant. They look like four feet ants. However they do not have an exoskeleton, are intelligent and possess a type of esthetical culture, sing to the sun at dawn daily, and fly on domesticated airborn manta-ray type of looking plant. The spider-part of their name is based on how the cities and infrastructures of their cities are like a web, glowing at night.
The spiderants of Slide Show are almost written the opposite of the Others. They look like insects but in reality are not. They seem to be benevolent bio-engineers and worship the sun. The pets they grow and ride are actually plants and thus it harms noone. Meanwhile the Others shun the sun, only grow ice and ride dead animals. And while the Others look humanoid their mind and blood circulation system is likely to be more insectlike.
This insect-like being having humanoid features is repeated with the manticore. It is a scorpion-like insect of the Jade Sea, found mostly on Manticore Island, with a stinging tail and seemingly a human face. Its exoskeleton is deceptive as it appears jewel-like and its fast working venom induces a heart attack (unless Oberon Martell tampers with it). After the House of the Undying, Pyat Pree hires the Sorrowful Men to assassinate Dany with a manticore.
A Qartheen stepped into her path. “Mother of Dragons, for you.” He knelt and thrust a jewel box into her face. Dany took it almost by reflex. The box was carved wood, its mother-of-pearl lid inlaid with jasper and chalcedony. “You are too generous.” She opened it. Within was a glittering green scarab carved from onyx and emerald. […] As she reached inside the box, the man said, “I am so sorry,” but she hardly heard. The scarab unfolded with a hiss. Dany caught a glimpse of a malign black face, almost human, and an arched tail dripping venom . . . and then the box flew from her hand in pieces, turning end over end. […] Ser Jorah slammed past her, and Dany stumbled to one knee. She heard the hiss again. The old man drove the butt of his staff into the ground, […] “He was a Sorrowful Man. There was a manticore in that jewel box he gave me.” (aCoK, Daenerys V)
And it is right after the failed assassination attempt with the manticore that Jhogo, one of Dany’s bloodriders, says this peculiar line.
Aggo kicked his staff away and Jhogo seized him round the shoulders, forced him to his knees, and pressed a dagger to his throat. “Khaleesi, we saw him strike you. Would you see the color of his blood?” (aCoK, Daenerys V)
You know you remember that line, as the expression is so unique. You know you’ve read over it several times, never thinking it has a broader context. But now you have a context – the blood of insects and spiders and Others. Cheeky George!
Like spiders, most scorpions have hemocyanin, and George reminds us that manticores are spiderlike when Tyrion has Podrick name the families based on sigiles.
“Three black spiders?”
“They’re scorpions, ser. House Qorgyle of Sandstone, three scorpions black on red.” (aSoS, Tyrion V)
We also have a human character in the books that has the manticore for a sigil, Ser Amory Lorch, the ruthless landed knight who butchered Rhaegar’s daughter Rhaenys Targaryen during the sack of King’s Landing and attacked Arya, Yoren and the band of boys recruited for the Night’s Watch at the holdfast in the Riverlands.
He was a stout man with a manticore on his shield, and ornate scrollwork crawling across his steel breastplate. Through the open visor of his helm, a face pale and piggy peered up. “Ser Amory Lorch, bannerman to Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock, the Hand of the King. The true king, Joffrey.” He had a high, thin voice. “In his name, I command you to open these gates.”
He is pale faced and his high, thin voice indicates that Amory has a low level of testosterone, which would make him prone to having weight issues (like Varys). It suggests that the male spiderlike characters are but soldiers, unqualified to mate.
Amory takes no prisoners, only kills mindlessly, friend and foe, and does not even bother to bury his own fallen me, not unlike the Others. He only differs in that he uses fire as a weapon as well and cannot raise the dead.
“Storm the walls and kill them all,” Ser Amory said in a bored voice. […] The night rang to the clash of steel and the cries of the wounded and dying. For a moment Arya stood uncertain, not knowing which way to go. Death was all around her. (aCoK, Arya IV)
When they finally summoned the nerve to steal back into the ruins the next night, nothing remained but blackened stones, the hollow shells of houses, and corpses. […] They found the gates broken down, the walls partly demolished, and the inside strewn with the unburied dead. One look was enough for Gendry. “They’re killed, every one,” he said. […] Ser Amory Lorch had given no more thought to burying his own dead than to those he had murdered […]. (aCoK, Arya V)
More than Varys, Xaro and the Pureborn, Amory is as monstrous as the Undying. He looks human, but whatever lies behind that human face is a killer who has no regard whatsoever for life. The sole personal thing we know of Ser Amory is that he is partial to tarts. Basically, Ser Amory Lorch is void, a killer machine – a psychopath who gets more emotional over food than a picture of a cute kitten.
We get another spider reference at the Sisters in the first chapter of Davos in aDwD, after Salladhor Saan put Davos in a dingy nearby. Davos gets taken to Lord Godric Borrel and is offered sisterstew.
“There’s three kinds of crabs in there. Red crabs and spider crabs and conquerors. I won’t eat spider crab, except in sister’s stew. Makes me feel half a cannibal.” His lordship gestured at the banner hanging above the cold black hearth. A spider crab was embroidered there, white on a grey-green field. (aDwD, Davos I)
Many crab species as crustaceans also rely on hemocyanin instead of hemoglobin. The three kind of crabs in sister’s stew that Borrel talks about serve as a parallel to the three dangers in the series. The red crabs are the false Lannister kings, and more generally, the petty squabbles of humans over power. We know this is partially throne related as the third type of crab is called conquerer, or the dragons with their dragonriders having dragonblood. The second threat are the white spiderlike Others symbolised by the spider crabs that aside from the Fingers can also be found in the Shivering Sea.
In the chapter, Davos and Godric Borrel discuss Cersei Lannister being the regent. But earlier on Lord Borrel also mentions a witty remark about a sloe-eyed-maid, which is a ship that Dany tried to hire in Qarth in aCoK. After it harbored at Pentos, it ended up being lured to its doom on the cliffs by the Sistermen using a false night lamp. The spices aboard the ship end up in the sister’s stew. With the sloe-eyed-maid come the tales about the conquering dragon queen. If Lord Godric Borrel has heard tales of Dany from a ship crashing on his rocks that has sailed all the way from Qarth to Pentos and then was on its way to Braavos, then no doubt he has tales too of ships that sailed from Eastwatch. After all, Alisser Thorne was already sent to King’s Landing by ship via Eastwatch with a wight’s hand by the end of aGoT, which is not an unlikely source of information, since inspecting hands and fingers is a recurring theme in the chapter. Lord Godric inspects Davos’s hand to make sure he is the Onion Knight, and Davos notes the webbing mark on both Lord Godric and one of his granddaughters.
He was an ugly man, big and fleshy, with an oarsman’s thick shoulders and no neck. Coarse grey stubble, going white in patches, covered his cheeks and chin. Above a massive shelf of brow he was bald. His nose was lumpy and red with broken veins, his lips thick, and he had a sort of webbing between the three middle fingers of his right hand. Davos had heard that some of the lords of the Three Sisters had webbed hands and feet, but he had always put that down as just another sailor’s story. […] The woman brought them a fresh loaf of bread, still hot from the oven. When Davos saw her hand, he stared. Lord Godric did not fail to make note of it. “Aye, she has the mark. Like all Borrells, for five thousand years. My daughter’s daughter. Not the one who makes the stew.” (aDwD, Davos I)
The only tale in the books that potentially points to the origin of the Borrel webbing mark is that of Nimble Dick about squishers. Nimble Dick’s real name is Dick Crabb who claims to be a descendant of Ser Clarence Crabb. Of interest for this essay is the parallel between both chapters. In one, Davos notices the webbing of the Borrels between their fingers over eating crab stew, while a crab tells tales of water-dwelling monsters with webs between their fingers in the other.
Speculation over the connection between the Squishers and the Borrels are not our concern here, but the potential tie to spiders instead. Crabs are crustaceans, which are mostly aquatic animals, while arachnids are mostly terrestrial. Both crustaceans and arachnids are subgroups of the arthropod animal group, having both an exoskeleton as well as hemocyanin reliance in common. But each survive in another environment and evolve into a different shape as they adapted to it. Crabs are not spiders, but their cousins. As a consequence the same thing would be true for the white spiderlike Others and the fish-belly white Squishers, and this evolutionary tie is represented by referring to white crabs as spider crabs, which is the Borrel sigil. Where spiders build mazes and silk webs to catch their prey, the Borrels lure their prey at night into the trap that are the Fingers with a night lamp and cliffs, hence they webbing between their fingers. And of course, it brings those Walking Webs of the Plague Star back to mind. And as with Varys, the Qartheen and Lysa Arryn we get a “this smells” allusion by George: Sisterton and Godric Borrel are “fishy”.
“Then you are in the wrong place, with the wrong lord.” Lord Godric seemed amused. “This is Sisterton, on Sweetsister.”
“I know it is.” There was nothing sweet about Sisterton, though. It was a vile town, a sty, small and mean and rank with the odors of pig shit and rotting fish. (aDwD, Davos I)
An honourable mention goes to Biter, who stinks of bad cheese. We meet him first on the road to the Riverlands in Arya’s chapter. He is one of the dangerous captives that Yoren keeps caged, together with Rorge and Jaqen H’ghar. He hisses like a manticore. He is bald like Varys and Xaro, has eyes like nothing human, pointed teeth like a squisher and milk-white flesh. He has no webbing though, lacking the cunning and wit to set traps. He is but a simple being who eats people. The latter reminds us of the deadly bite of the male dreamspider.
. . . and Biter crashed into her, shrieking. He fell on her like an avalanche of wet wool and milk-white flesh, lifting her off her feet and slamming her down into the ground. […] She had only her hands to fight him off, but when she slammed a fist into his face it was like punching a ball of wet white dough. He hissed at her. […] He was crushing her, smothering her. […] Biter’s mouth gaped open, impossibly wide. She saw his teeth, yellow and crooked, filed into points. When they closed on the soft meat of her cheek, she hardly felt it. […] Biter’s mouth tore free, full of blood and flesh. He spat, grinned, and sank his pointed teeth into her flesh again. This time he chewed and swallowed. He is eating me, she realized, but she had no strength left to fight him any longer. (aFfC, Brienne VII)
The bolt-on theory has been around for some time. The mentioning of Roose Bolton here is not this though. We do not believe that Roose Bolton is an actual Other, nor an immortal. But he seems to have been set up to have parallels with them and other spider-characters. Therefore, the first relevant quote about Roose in this essay is how Jaime considers Roose’s voice to be spider soft.
Roose Bolton’s eyes were paler than stone, darker than milk, and his voice was spider soft. (aSoS, Jaime V)
Roose always played the long game, watching and waiting in the shadows for Robb Stark to make a mistake, as well as thinning out the levies of other Northern lords by putting them in the most dangerous positions in the battlefield and sending Glover and Manderly to Duskendale, while his son did the dirty work for him up North. Arya may have heard and seen crucial information that alert the reader to Roose’s decision to kill wolves, but she is not politically conscious yet. Jaime is the first POV to realize what Roose may be up to, during the conversatoin over dinner, and therefore recognizes him as a spider who has spun his trap.
One of the most noticeable feature of Roose Bolton are his eyes. Catelyn thinks they are pale, almost without color. Theon compares them to ice or chips of dirty ice, as well as two white moons. Roose’s eyes therefore are not literal Others’ eyes – those are a deep blue – but only a metaphorical reminder of them when we throw pale, ice, moon and milk together to describe the same thing. George also has Theon wonder what Roose’s tears would feel like on his cheeks.
Reek wondered if Roose Bolton ever cried. If so, do the tears feel cold upon his cheeks? (aDwD, Reek II)
This is an allusion to a much repeated phrase in the series of it being so cold that tears freeze on cheeks or even over the eyes itself. Chett’s tears freeze to his cheeks at the onset of the attack on the Fist in the Prologue, Sam’s during his escape to Craster’s from the Fist, as well as when he has to fight wighted Small Paul. In a snowstorm on the way to the cave with Coldhands, Bran’s tears do the same, as do Hodor’s. Jon thinks of tears freezing upon cheeks when the Free Folk hostages surrender to him. The Wull uses it as a phrase for why he and his men joined Stannis against Roose Bolton. But Old Nan was the first to use the phrase to Bran when she tells tales of the Others.
“The Others,” Old Nan agreed. “Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. […] Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.” (aGoT, Bran IV)
Of course, when Theon thinks of Roose’s, he is not wondering what winter would do to Roose’s tears, but whether Roose’s body temperature is so cold that his tears would freeze. Assuming that the Others must maintain a body temperature lower than -200 °C in order remain in a solid state, Theon’s musings are a strong allusion to this.
Another noteworthy musing by Theon about Roose’s eyes is how empty they look.
Bolton’s pale eyes looked empty in the moonlight, as if there were no one behind them at all. (aDwD, Reek III)
This is analogues to the proposal of Others as insect-like minds behind the humanoid face. Even if they are intelligent, they have no personality, no emotions, nothing human-like. Not having much of a personality or emotions is also exemplified in Roose’s facial features. Both Arya and Theon consider him to be plain and ordinary looking.
It was almost evenfall when the new master of Harrenhal arrived. He had a plain face, beardless and ordinary, notable only for his queer pale eyes. Neither plump, thin, nor muscular, he wore black ringmail and a spotted pink cloak. (aCoK, Arya IX)
[Roose Bolton’s] face was clean-shaved, smooth-skinned, ordinary, not handsome but not quite plain. Though Roose had been in battles, he bore no scars. Though well past forty, he was as yet unwrinkled, with scarce a line to tell of the passage of time. His lips were so thin that when he pressed them together they seemed to vanish altogether. There was an agelessness about him, a stillness; on Roose Bolton’s face, rage and joy looked much the same. (aDwD, Reek II)
Despite the Others being so inhuman, different and otherworldly to both Will and Samwell, Will is the sole POV witness who sees several Others at once at close proximity, and therefore should be capable of noting individual differences in expression between them – signs of individual personality. But Will remarks on the opposite really – he calls them ‘twins’ to the first one and to each other. Their faces therefore lack dinstinguishable characterization or personality, much like Roose. He even refers to them as faceless.
They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … […] Behind [Royce], to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, […] (aGoT, Prologue)
Lady Dustin gives an explanation for Roose’s ageless appearance to Theon and the reader: he has no feelings.
“Roose has no feelings, you see. […] He does not love, he does not hate, he does not grieve.” (aDwD, The Prince of Winterfell)
There is a real world phenomenon that George applies here on Roose. Psychopaths tend to have little to no wrinkles or grey hair. They age well, if they leave substance or food abuse well alone, and might easily look ten or even twenty years younger than they truly are. This is because they do not experience stress or anything more than superficial emotions. So, when George has Lady Dustin declare the man has no feelings, that is the explanation why Roose seems to lack any signs of aging, and therefore lack of notable personality. It are after all our laughing lines and our frowns that give us visible “character”.
If Roose Bolton serves as a parallel to the Others, we can then conclude that the Others do not love nor grieve either. The Others may speak their own language, but they sing no songs of mourning or love. Most noteworthy of all the emotions the Others would not feel is hatred. They do not hate Bran, Bloodraven, greenseers or humans. They do not do what they do out of hatred, revenge or pay-back. The conflict is impersonal to them and they do what they do simply because it is their nature and the opportunity presents itself. We are not saying they lack motivation, just that it is not an emotional one.
Despite the fact that Roose Bolton has no profound feelings, he is not a robot either. Lady Dustin also points out to Theon that he sees other humans as plaything to divert him.
I think he would be pleased if the fat man attempted some betrayal. It would amuse him. […] This is a game to him, mildly diverting. Some men hunt, some hawk, some tumble dice. Roose plays with men.” (aDwD, The Prince of Winterfell)
And certainly Dustin’s words put to mind the game the Other plays with Waymar Royce when he duels him, mocks Royce, and they all laugh as they butcher him in the end.
Roose Bolton lay abed, naked. Leeches clung to the inside of his arms and legs and dotted his pallid chest, long translucent things that turned a glistening pink as they fed. (aCoK, Arya X)
When we think of Roose as a spider-parallel to the Others, it gives the leeching a deeper layered meaning. Varys the Spider hates the sight of his own red blood. The underlying psychological reason is how the red blood conflicts with his self-identity as a spider, for it ought to be blue. Roose cites Hyppocratic beliefs of humours when he advocates leeching, but when we look at it from a spider angle, we realize that as a human his body makes red blood daily, and only the leeches can help him get rid of it.
“Frequent leechings are the secret of a long life. A man must purge himself of bad blood.” (aCoK, Arya IX)
Lord Bolton sighed. “His blood is bad. He needs to be leeched. The leeches suck away the bad blood, all the rage and pain. No man can think so full of anger. Ramsay, though … his tainted blood would poison even leeches, I fear.” (aDwD, Reek III)
With the red human blood also come the hormones that signal emotions. Whether Roose started to self-medicate with leeches because of unwanted emotions first or hating the idea of red blood and discovering peace of mind is a chicken-and-egg question. The result is that over time he has become to physically and emotionally resemble an Other more and more, and blames the bad (=red) blood, for that is all leeches suck.
Now, while Roose Bolton is some icy lord with a spider voice, Ramsay is quite another creature. Yes, they share the same ghost grey eyes, but Ramsay has a far more fiery nature. And when Ramsay fantasises aloud about setting Barrowton afire (as he did with Winterfell), Roose is greatly displeased and expresses doubt how Ramsay could be his son.
Ramsay seethed. “All she does is spit on me. The day will come when I’ll set her precious wooden town afire. Let her spit on that, see if it puts out the flames.”
Roose made a face, as if the ale he was sipping had suddenly gone sour. “There are times you make me wonder if you truly are my seed.” (aDwD, Reek III)
It is not just the dumb violence that apalls Roose, but his sourness is set against the use of flame and fire.
In Ramsay we see a strange mixture of the icy paleness struggle with that of the fiery red blood. His face is said to be pink and blotchy, almost as if his skin is part ice, part fire; as if the red blood is trying to conquer the icy side.
[Ramsay’s] skin was pink and blotchy, his nose broad, his mouth small, his hair long and dark and dry. His lips were wide and meaty, but the thing men noticed first about him were his eyes. He had his lord father’s eyes—small, close-set, queerly pale. (aDwD, Reek I)
This is even reflected in father’s and son’s attire with a subtle nod. While the Bolton’s sigil colour is pink – dilluted red blood – and Roose wears grey plated armour, Ramsay prefers black and very much attempts to redden the pink with his clothing and a garnet earring (garnet being a bastard ruby). Black and red are “fire and blood” colors, not icy ones. Ramsay even rides a red stallion with a fiery temper that loves to kick people, and Ramsay called him Blood.
Ramsay was clad in black and pink—black boots, black belt and scabbard, black leather jerkin over a pink velvet doublet slashed with dark red satin. In his right ear gleamed a garnet cut in the shape of a drop of blood. (aDwD, Reek I)
His lordship [Ramsay] himself rode Blood, a red stallion with a temper to match his own. He was laughing. […] [Reek] led Blood off toward the stables, hopping aside when the stallion tried to kick him. (aDwD, Reek III)
You may argue that Roose’s attire also has plenty of red in it (blood-red leather, red silk), except it is not actually Roose wearing it. It is a ruse.
Back where the press was thickest at the center of the column rode a man armored in dark grey plate over a quilted tunic of blood-red leather. His rondels were wrought in the shape of human heads, with open mouths that shrieked in agony. From his shoulders streamed a pink woolen cloak embroidered with droplets of blood. Long streamers of red silk fluttered from the top of his closed helm. […] An enclosed wagon groaned along behind him, drawn by six heavy draft horses and defended by crossbowmen, front and rear. Curtains of dark blue velvet concealed the wagon’s occupants from watching eyes. […] When the rider in the dark armor removed his helm, however, the face beneath was not one that Reek knew. Ramsay’s smile curdled at the sight, and anger flashed across his face. “What is this, some mockery?”
“Just caution,” whispered Roose Bolton, as he emerged from behind the curtains of the enclosed wagon. (aDwD, Reek II)
Instead of wearing the heavily red-coded attire, Roose sat in a wagon behind a blue velvet curtain. Given a choice, Roose prefers blue over red. At the most Roose suffers the pink cloak with blood droplets. And as Ramsay is set against his father more and more, Roose’s son becomes more fire. And that both these very destructive men, in their own way will clash is certain.
Reek saw the way Ramsay’s mouth twisted, the spittle glistening between his lips. He feared he might leap the table with his dagger in his hand. Instead he flushed red, turned his pale eyes from his father’s paler ones, and went to find the keys. (aDwD, Reek III)
If you expand that though, whomever of these two survives to face Stannis, Jon Snow, or Rickon Stark with Sansa and the Vale army, the Boltons ultimately still represent the “dirty ice” side of the North, using dishonourable methods, lies and skin stealing to gain dominion over the North and declare themselves Kings of Winter. And just like the Starks are not allies of the Others, nor are the Boltons, the Borrels, the Qartheen, or Varys. They are microcosmos rivalries of ice and fire within families, regions, continents, and so on. But we can learn a great deal about the Others indirectly through them.
For the final section we bring you the Spotted Spider of House Webber of Coldmoat, Rohanne Webber or the Red Widow. At first glance, you may end up just piling her on the heap of ice spider characters in the books. Her castle has the word cold in it. She is rumored to have poisoned her three to four husbands, hence the variation on the black widow spider.
Ser Eustace to Dunk: “The woman has a spider’s heart. She murdered three of her husbands. And all her brothers died in swaddling clothes. Five, there were. Or six, mayhaps, I don’t recall. They stood between her and the castle.”
Egg to Dunk: “You’d best not take any food or drink at Coldmoat, ser. The Red Widow poisoned all her husbands.” […] “Four,” said Egg, “but no children. Whenever she gives birth, a demon comes by night to carry off the issue.” (The Sworn Sword)
Dunk imagined her to be an older woman near her menopause, because of these tales. Instead she is but a young woman of twenty-five, as petite as a Child, with hair kissed by fire.
If Dunk was shy an inch of seven feet, the archer was shy an inch of five. He could have spanned her waist with his two hands. Her red hair was bound up in a braid so long it brushed past her thighs, and she had a dimpled chin, a snub nose, and a light spray of freckles across her cheeks. […] Dunk looked from one lady to the other. “You are the Red Widow?” he heard himself blurt out. […] Dunk could feel her fingers through the silk. Her hand was freckled, too. I’ll bet she’s freckled all over. His mouth was oddly dry. (The Sworn Sword)
She does however lay out a spider trap early on in the stoy: a dam.
Behind the dam the flow was creeping up the banks and spilling off into a ditch that had been cut through Lady Webber’s fields. Dunk stood in his stirrups for a better look. The glint of sun on water betrayed a score of lesser channels, running off in all directions like a spider’s web. (The Sworn Sword)
A trap not to kill husbands, but to catch herself one, as well as be rid of an unwanted suitor who cockblocks the others. After the death of her fourth husband, her father wished she would marry his castellan Longinch. She refused. Her father then decreed in his will that if she remained unwed on the second anniversary of his death, Coldmoat and its lands would pass to her father’s cousin instead. He also charged Longinch to protect Rohanne from unworthy suitors, and Longinch expanded this to mean all suitors. By the time Rohanne lays her trap of webbed water, she only has one moon left before her father’s cousin becomes its master. Her choice, for that purpose, was Ser Eustace Osgrey, an old knight, who she hopes to antagonize enough to fight Longinch. And due to his age, she no doubt expected him to not last decades beyond their marriage. Luckily for the both of them, Dunk ends up fighting Longinch and kills him.
Rohanne Webber is not ice nor nocturnal at all during the story. She behaves very much the opposite – a fiery red spider. Aside from being a redhead with freckles, her banner is a black field, a silver web and a red-white spotted spider in the heart of it. The color scheme of red, black and silver is that of the Targaryens and the dragonblood. It is not the cream velvet, milk-white and sapphire blue of the Others and ice spiders. We even get the reference of an iron spider.
From every turret and spire the black banners of Webber hung heavy, each emblazoned with a spotted spider upon a silvery web.[…] The drifting smoke made it hard to tell how far off they were, until her banner bearer pushed through the ragged gray curtain. His staff was crowned by an iron spider painted white and red, with the black banner of the Webbers hanging listlessly beneath. (The Sworn Sword)
When Rohanne herself appears at the dam, in armor, for the confrontation, this color scheme is repeated. She rides a coal-black mare, decked on in strands of silver silk. At the end of the story, she also has a blood bay called Flame to gift to Dunk. A blood bay and a coal-black mare are described in the same wording as the Sarnori ones.
Only then did Lady Rohanne herself appear, astride a coal-black mare decked out in strands of silverly silk, like unto a spider’s web. The Widow’s cloak was made of the same stuff. It billowed from her shoulders and her wrists, as light as air.
“A big courser, with some Dornish sand steed for endurance.” She pointed to the stall across from Thunder’s. “A horse like her.” She was a blood bay with a bright eye and a long fiery mane. […] “I call her Flame, but you may name her as you please. Call her Amends, if you like.” (The Sworn Sword)
When Dunk visits her as envoy to broker a peace between Eustace and her over the built dam, Rohanne sends Dunk back to the landed knight with the threat of ‘fire and sword’.
“Tell Ser Eustace to bring me Bennis of the Brown Shield by the morrow, else I will come for him myself with fire and sword. Do you understand me? Fire and sword! ” (The Sworn Sword)
Swords are made of steel, of iron. And both iron and swords imply red blood. Later, it seems as if she had Wat’s Wood puto flame. All that is left is charcoal and ash. And far earlier on in the story, we also learn that Wat’s Wood once extended as far as Coldmoat at her side of the Chequiy water, but Rohanne’s spiders cleared all the trees on her side of the river. This red fiery spider does not plant trees. So, it is rather awkward that Dunk tells the smallfolk on Eustace’s land that “there are no dragons in this, black or red“. Rohanne may not have a drop of Valyrian blood in her, but her words, the color scheme and her not planting trees, make her look more like a dragon than a spider, let alone an ice spider.
As for Coldmoat, the Webbers were NOT the original masters of it, but Eustace’s ancestors: for a thousand years, until Maegor the Cruel took it from them, because the Osgreys opposed his law to disarm the Faith.
“For a thousand years before the Conquest, we were the Marshalls of the Northmarch. A score of lesser lordlings did us fealty, and a hundred landed knights. We had four castles then, and watchtowers on the hills to warn of the coming of our enemies. Coldmoat was the greatest of our seats. Lord Perwyn Osgrey raised it. Perwyn the Proud, they called him.” (The Sworn Sword)
With the Osgreys having been marshalls of the Northmarch for a thousand years, they come off as a lower status version of the Starks in the Reach (despite their lion sigil, despite its colors of yellow and green).
How does a fire spider work if spiders are blue blooded? Well, the world book tells us the actual spotted spiders can be found in Sothoryoys. This continent has a sweltering tropical climate and thus is naturally far richer in oxygen than oceans and cold low pressure regions. The spotted spiders therefore may have evolved in such a manner that they have hemoglobin, which is a far more efficient way to bind with oxygen in a hot climate. They thus would be red blooded, and thus fire-and-iron spiders, which is what Rohanne Webber comes to represent for the main part.
Rohanne seems an anomaly in comparison to the other icy spider characters, but without a fire spider, readers could mistake the dragons opposing the Others as the universal rescue and aid against them. In the Sworn Sword, George highlights that both ice and fire are two sides of the same destructive coin. A generation long winter is deadly, but so is a long crippling drought where a tiny spark can set a whole wood ablaze.
If a common dragon can be equated with a fire spider, then Others could be equated with ice dragons. The World Book relates how some people claim to have seen ice dragons.
These colossal beasts, many times larger than the dragons of Valyria, are said to be made of living ice, with eyes of pale blue crystal and vast translucent wings through which the moon and stars can be glimpsed as they wheel across the sky. Whereas common dragons (if any dragon can truly be said to be common) breathe flame, ice dragons supposedly breathe cold, a chill so terrible that it can freeze a man solid in half a heartbeat. […] As ice dragons supposedly melt when slain, no actual proof of their existence has ever been found. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Shivering Sea)
The show has given us an ice dragon (dead Viserion). There is a children’s book of George called the Ice Dragon and the back cover’s synopsis tries to make out as if it is set in Westeros and the North. But George himself said on his Not a Blog that the story was written before the world of Ice and Fire existed, and that the Ice Dragon short story is not set in Westeros or Planetos. The publication of Fire and Blood assured readers that none of Dany’s dragons will be flying north of the Wall, since Alysanne’s dragon refused or could not fly across the Wall when she visited Castle Black. We do not know whether ice dragons truly exist on Planetos, and we doubt George will ever feature an actual ice dragon. They just seem to serve as a mythological parallel to the Others themselves. We may, however, see an icy dragon character.
As with Varys and other spidery characters, Rohanne Webber is more than a fire spider alone. She may act the antagonist, but is likely as innocent of burning Wat’s Wood as she is of poisoning her husbands. Her sought-out confrontation is something she sets-up to benefit both Ser Eustace as herself, and she actually aims to forge a peace through marriage. Longinch guarded her every move too well for his own gain and prejudices were so against her that she required a ruse without Longinch suspecting anything. Even as she rode to the dam on a coal-black mare under a fire spider banner, she still wore armor that made her look more like a forest child bedecked in leaves.
Conclusion aka TL;TR
Well, that was long, and we have not yet covered the Long Night, ice magic, whether there is a relation between the Children of the Forest or not. But we hope it covers extensive food for thought, some more tinfoil than others.
So, to recap. Forget pretty much all of what the show depicted as Others. The White Walkers are most definitely not the Others. The likelihood that the Others have some Adam-Other comparable to the show’s Night King are close to zero, for it takes away the sole Lovecraftian threat in the series in the current timeline that George has set up. If there is some boss force for the Others, whether that is a blue flame or a Spider Goddess, then it will likely be nigh indestructable and will remain in the Heart of the Lands of Always Winter.
Though the Others are only featured in two chapters in two different POVs across the currently published books of the series, George gives us several clues that the Others are an inhuman species of their own, with their own language and own soundbox. George likens them to Sidhe, and on the surface that seems to be true.
But taking a physical approach to the tidbit clues George gives us in those scenes, we dare to propose that the Others are not just made of ice or iced flesh, but that George has them made out of Plutonion matter: solid nitrogen, carbon monoxide, methane and liquid hydrogen. They require such a low body temperature to remain solid that this could explain how the Others manage to affect the environment (the cold, the snow). Pluto also thematically fits with deadly reapers of the Underworld building their army to expand their dominion beyond the Heart of the Lands of Always Winter. Not so coincidentally, Jon Howe painted the Others as reapers with a scythe in his ice spider illustration for the 2020 calendar.
The description of the bones and flesh match that of nitrogen, which is a chemical element that leads to suffocation and named after the Greek word “to choke”, one of the two main methods the Others’ minion, the wights, use to kill someone. Meanwhile the glow of the sword and the deep inhuman blue of their eyes matches the spectrogafic color that carbon monoxide produces, echoed in Varys’s blue flame. Waymar bleeding blood as bright as fire from the wound inflicted by the Other’s sword can be considered a hint of the blood having bonded with CO. Once the ice-magic spell is broken though, and body temperature cannot be maintained anymore, these chemicals would end up reacting to form water and vapor with the oxygen in the air. Hydrogen explains the need of the Others’ to avoid flames and sun, for this chemical is highly explosive then.
The biological approach makes us realize that the legend about the ice spiders likely serves as a hint and metaphor of the Others’ mental, emotional and biological nature. The Others bleed blue blood, or rather the hemocyanin protein (or similar alternative without denaturating – thank you Lady Dayne) in liquid hydrogen (rather than water). The copper binds oxygen, whereas hemoglobin uses iron. “Hemocyanin’s” performance is overall not as efficient as hemoglobin in normal conditions, but it does far better than the latter in cold and low-oxygen environments and is failproof against carbon monoxide. This type of untrue blood is typical for anthropods – including arachnids and crustaceans. Others having blood like spiders explains why they are said to hate iron and red blood, despite the fact that humans fought mainly with weaponry made from bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) in the age of the Long Night.
We consistently meet references and allusions to blue hemocyanin blood with ice spider-like characters, such as blue veins, blue hearts pumping blue stuff freely into a room (aside from pale milk-white skin). We even have a scene in the House of the Undying that copies the inside anatomy of a spider, with a heart floating above the dinner table where Dany is about to be digested in a dreamspider way. Meanhile fire or dragonlike characters are typically associated with black iron and coal, red blood and flames. This is even true for the thematic scheme with the weirwood trees and the trees that are used to make Shade of the Evening. Ice versus fire are thus also ‘blue’ versus ‘red’ (blood), copper/bronze versus iron, spiders versus snakes/wyverns/dragons.* There is the occasional anomaly where George writes a fire spider, but a fire spider is just a wordplay for a dragonlike character who has no dragonlord blood. Likewise an ice dragon is an ice spider and therefore an Other.
* For their own arc and purpose in the story, it is not so much the appearance that matters for these spider-characters, but how stinky they are and whether they try to mask the smell with flowers or perfume.
Mentally and emotionally, the humanoid looking Others being ice spiders, makes them an inhuman species that is far removed from our human understanding. Trying to figure out their motives for rounding up an army of wights to overrun all of Westeros, whether during the Long Night or in the current timeline is as futile as contemplating the motives of a hive of ants. Through a character parallel such as Roose Bolton we can conclude their do not love, grieve or hate. Hence, hatred for mankind does not motivate them. At best they see humans and other hot blooded mammals as a diversion.
Hence, there is nothing human whatsoever about the Others. They are not made from matter the way any other life is on Planetos, but more like what life would be like on Pluto, if it had life. They do not have the same blood circulation system as most life has on Planetos, but at best share something similar with insects, arachnids, mollusks and crustaceans. They have no human or even mammalian motivations or emotions. They are comparable to intelligent insects that only have a humanoid shape.