“You close it good and tight. They’re coming, crow.” He smiled as ugly a smile as Jon had ever seen and made his way to the gate. The boar stalked after him. The falling snow covered up their tracks behind them.. (aDwD, Jon XII)
While there are variations and disagreements on many particulars on what follows after the assassination attempt on Jon’s life, there tends to be one consensus amongst the readers: the Others are chilling far away from the Wall for now.
- An Illusion of Time
- Winter Has Come
- The Free Folk Know
- Snow! Snow! Snow!
- The Cold
- Buried Zombies
- The Magical Ward
- Conclusion (tl;tr)
George actively aims to lull the reader into believing there is time before the Others will finally come knocking, by having Jon himself misread or underestimate the signs of their near presence; by having Jon plan an overland trek to Hardhome. He also created an expectation with the readers via the attack on the Fist of the First Men in aSoS and Mel’s vision of Hardhome that when the Others do arrive at the Wall, they will do so with a full force of perhaps ten thousand wights.
Snowflakes swirled from a dark sky and ashes rose to meet them, the grey and the white whirling around each other as flaming arrows arced above a wooden wall and dead things shambled silent through the cold, beneath a great grey cliff where fires burned inside a hundred caves. Then the wind rose and the white mist came sweeping in, impossibly cold, and one by one the fires went out. Afterward only the skulls remained. (aDwD, Melisandre I)
Burning shafts hissed upward, trailing tongues of fire. Scarecrow brothers tumbled down, black cloaks ablaze. “Snow,” an eagle cried, as foemen scuttled up the ice like spiders. Jon was armored in black ice, but his blade burned red in his fist. As the dead men reached the top of the Wall he sent them down to die again. He slew a greybeard and a beardless boy, a giant, a gaunt man with filed teeth, a girl with thick red hair. Too late he recognized Ygritte. She was gone as quick as she’d appeared. (aDwD, Jon XII)
But the Others do not always use the tactic of the Fist of the First Men. Nor do they operate all at once in the same location. For example, while some led an attack on Hardhome, other Others nibbled at Tormund’s army journeying south to the Wall.
Furthermore, readers also expect the first strike to be at Eastwatch, because Mel said so.
Then the towers by the sea, crumbling as the dark tide came sweeping over them, rising from the depths. […]
Was it? Melisandre had seen Eastwatch-by-the-Sea with King Stannis. That was where His Grace left Queen Selyse and their daughter Shireen when he assembled his knights for the march to Castle Black. The towers in her fire had been different, but that was oft the way with visions. “Yes. Eastwatch, my lord.” (aDwD, Melisandre I)
But Melisandre herself is unsure whether she saw Eastwatch fall. Her own thoughts lean towards, “Nope”. She gave Jon an affirmative answer, because it seemed better to lie with confidence than to be truthful about her doubts. She has wanted Jon to seek her for advice and win his trust since her arrival at the Wall. He was always a skeptic of her. After the Weeper killed his brothers and left them as she had foretold, Jon finally comes to seek her out, and her answering “I don’t know which place I saw,” would not do.
So, if it is not Eastwatch, then what did Mel see? Since the early days of aDwD‘s release, a good section of the fandom suspects this is a vision about Euron conquering Oldtown:
- Oldtown will fall (by Jon the Dead, old account of Garlan the Good)
- Melisandre’s Towers by the Sea (by Rooseman)
- In the first thread by Jon the Dead/Garlan the Good, Ser Creighton proposes the Three Towers nearby Oldtown.
Both Garlan the Good and Rooseman propose the two towers represent members of House Hightower. Personally, I think the two towers represent the physical Hightower and the fall of House Hightower. The public reading by GRRM at a convention of Aeron’s POV chapter The Forsaken for tWoW has only strengthened the idea of Oldtown as target location for Euron’s attack. The naysayers of an attack on Oldtown in the early days doubted the length Euron would go with his dabbling in magic. The Forsaken though sets Euron up to either become or be an accomplice to an Eldritch horror and blew the naysayer argument out of the water (pun intended). Euron and Oldtown falls beyond the scope and intent of this essay. But it serves to throw serious Shade (pun intended) on Mel’s claim about Eastwatch.
It is quite important to keep the timeline in the back of your mind of Jon’s last chapter in aDwD, in comparison to basically almost any other POV, events and plot developments. That chapter is the farthest ahead in time, including aDwD‘s epilogue and sample chapters of tWoW. The plot of all the other POVs still need to catch up to Jon’s timeline: Cersei in King’s Landing, Arianne with Aegon and Storm’s End, Theon and Asha with Stannis, Davos in search of Rickon, Jaime and Brienne in the Riverlands, Sansa in the Vale, and finally Samwell and Aeron Damphair involving Oldtown and Euron. Add Arya in Braavos, Dany in the Dothraki Sea and the three POVs in Meereen, and we already have enough content for at least the first third of tWoW, if not the first half. And while no white raven from Oldtown has yet arrived at Castle Black to announce winter, it has in King’s Landing during the Epilogue, which can be synched with Jon IX or Jon X of aDwD. (see the timeline project). So, yes winter is very much here, and with winter so are the Others.
The white ravens of the Citadel did not carry messages, as their dark cousins did. When they went forth from Oldtown, it was for one purpose only: to herald a change of seasons. “Winter,” said Ser Kevan. The word made a white mist in the air. (aDwD, Epilogue)
Now, I am not the first reader to propose, the Others are “here”. Once in a while, readers will pause at the following description in the last paragraphs of Jon’s last chapter of aDwD.
“For the Watch.” Wick slashed at him again. This time Jon caught his wrist and bent his arm back until he dropped the dagger. The gangling steward backed away, his hands upraised as if to say, Not me, it was not me. Men were screaming. Jon reached for Longclaw, but his fingers had grown stiff and clumsy. Somehow he could not seem to get the sword free of its scabbard. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
With almost everybody’s attention on upset Wun Wun, it is unlikely any of the men screaming are actual witnesses to the assassination attempt. Wick’s attack of Jon is not the cause of their screaming. And so, some readers will wonder out loud, “Is it wights?” Especially, because this is the exact same question of Jon’s guard Rory when Patrek screams in mortal torment when Wun Wun pulls his arm.
He might have said more, but the scream cut him off. Val, was Jon’s first thought. But that was no woman’s scream. That is a man in mortal agony. He broke into a run. Horse and Rory raced after him. “Is it wights?” asked Rory. Jon wondered. Could his corpses have escaped their chains? The screaming had stopped by the time they came to Hardin’s Tower, but Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun was still roaring. The giant was dangling a bloody corpse by one leg, the same way Arya used to dangle her doll when she was small, swinging it like a morningstar when menaced by vegetables. Arya never tore her dolls to pieces, though. The dead man’s sword arm was yards away, the snow beneath it turning red. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
But just one line of “men screaming” without further explanation is not enough to convince readers. After all, we are not explicitly told what the men are screaming in fear for. It is suggestive, but inconclusive. However, when we go farther back in time of this chapter and to an earlier chapter we can build a case of circumstantial evidence.
The day the Free Folk are to pass through Castle Black’s gate to the southern side of the Wall, it starts to grow darker by afternoon, first grey with a snow sky blocking the sun out. As soon as the Free Folk realize there is a snow sky, they increasingly become impatient in the long waiting line and start to move faster. The darker it grows, the more the urgence increases amongst the Free Folk, enough for Jon to realize it is more than just impatience, but real fear.
By afternoon the sun had gone, and the day turned grey and gusty. “A snow sky,” Tormund announced grimly. Others had seen the same omen in those flat white clouds. It seemed to spur them on to haste. Tempers began to fray. One man was stabbed when he tried to slip in ahead of others who had been hours in the column. […] On and on the wildlings came. The day grew darker, just as Tormund said. Clouds covered the sky from horizon to horizon, and warmth fled. There was more shoving at the gate, as men and goats and bullocks jostled each other out of the way. It is more than impatience, Jon realized. They are afraid. Warriors, spearwives, raiders, they are frightened of those woods, of shadows moving through the trees. They want to put the Wall between them before the night descends. (aDwD, Jon XII)
And when Jon first inquires with Tormund to tell him all he can about the Others, the man is reluctant to talk of them north of the Wall, mumbling his answer and eyeing the tree line uneasily.
“Tormund,” Jon said, as they watched four old women pull a cartful of children toward the gate, “tell me of our foe. I would know all there is to know of the Others.”
The wildling rubbed his mouth. “Not here,” he mumbled, “not this side o’ your Wall.” The old man 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)
It is so easy for the reader to dismiss this fear as superstition or jolly Har-Tormund as being a tall-talker, because George has conditioned the reader to consider wildlings and lowborn characters in this way. We are conditioned by our own culture and the precedents to respond to them the same way Waymar Royce dismissed Gared in aGoT‘s prologue, even if we know and recognize the Others are real. And even while Tormund is indeed a tall-talker, can still make jokes and be a jolly fellow, he is also a leader. Thousands of wildlings still chose to follow him after the Battle at the Wall, followed him south to agree to a deal with the Night’s Watch. Unlike the many who went with Mother Mole to Hardhome, these Free Folk and Tormund survived in great numbers and managed to cross safely to the southern side of the Wall. But this was not because the Others did not bother with them. Quite the opposite, Others journeyed with them south, taking out scouts, outriders and stragglers.
“Did they trouble you on your way south?”
“They never came in force, if that’s your meaning, but they were with us all the same, nibbling at our edges. We lost more outriders than I care to think about, and it was worth your life to fall behind or wander off. Every nightfall we’d ring our camps with fire. They don’t like fire much, and no mistake. When the snows came, though … snow and sleet and freezing rain, it’s bloody hard to find dry wood or get your kindling lit, and the cold … some nights our fires just seemed to shrivel up and die. Nights like that, you always find some dead come the morning. ‘Less they find you first. The night that Torwynd … my boy, he …’ Tormund turned his face away. (aDwD, Jon XII)
We should picture this journey south by Tormund and the Free Folk more akin to Samwell’s death march to Craster after the Fist.
Tormund also points out to Jon that there is a huge difference between accepting the existence of Others and the actual deadly interaction with them.
Tormund turned back. “You know nothing. You killed a dead man, aye, I heard. Mance killed a hundred. A man can fight the dead, but when their masters come, when the white mists rise up … how do you fight a mist, crow? Shadows with teeth … air so cold it hurts to breathe, like a knife inside your chest … you do not know, you cannot know … can your sword cut cold?” (aDwD, Jon XII)
Jon’s own personal experience has solely been with just one wight. His Wall-dream/nightmare with the dead climbing the Wall like spiders basically only involves wights. So far, he has never seen or crossed swords with an Other. The sole man who lived to tell such a tale was Samwell. He does not even know the tell-tale signs of their proximity. But Tormund and the Free Folk passing the gate of the Wall do. So, Jon and we the readers should take the Free Folk’s fears serious.
And we should pay attention to Tormund’s orders when they align with environmental circumstances that are associated with Others: darkness, cold and snow. During the crossing of the Wall, it starts to snow. By then it is near dusk. Tormund urges his son Toregg to get the sick and weak moving, to burn the dead. When Toregg returns, he does so with Tormund’s rearguard.
The stream was no more than a trickle by the time Toregg emerged from the wood. With him rode a dozen mounted warriors armed with spears and swords. “My rear guard,” Tormund said, with a gap-toothed smile. “You crows have rangers. So do we. Them I left in camp in case we were attacked before we all got out.”
“Your best men.” (aDwD, Jon XII)
This rearguard’s job all day was to guard the sick and weak at the camp, not from attack by say the Weeper, but the Others. The risk or possibility of that happening was this real in Tormund’s mind. And guess who is one of the men of Tormund’s rearguard?
Amongst the riders came one man afoot, with some big beast trotting at his heels. A boar, Jon saw. A monstrous boar. Twice the size of Ghost, the creature was covered with coarse black hair, with tusks as long as a man’s arm. Jon had never seen a boar so huge or ugly. The man beside him was no beauty either; hulking, black-browed, he had a flat nose, heavy jowls dark with stubble, small black close-set eyes.
“Borroq.” Tormund turned his head and spat.
“A skinchanger.” It was not a question. Somehow he knew.(aDwD, Jon XII)
Borroq is not just some skinchanger amongst thousands of Free Folk who followed Tormund. He is one of Tormund’s best men and part of the rearguard who was left to guard in case the Others decided to attack. Now, why would Tormund have a skinchanger and his boar remain behind to keep watch for any sign of the Others? Might it be, because his boar would “smell” the Others sooner than humans would? Because he would be the first able to warn people?
Borroq and his boar are often met with suspicion by readers and Jon. Certainly, George is using certain stereotypical situations for people to dislike him and his boar. First, Tormund turns and spits after speaking his name, and Ghost bares his teeth in a silent snarl, standing protectively in front of Jon once he smells the boar.
Ghost turned his head. The falling snow had masked the boar’s scent, but now the white wolf had the smell. He padded out in front of Jon, his teeth bared in a silent snarl. (aDwD, Jon XII)
This reminds us of Grey Wind when he was aggressively protective of Robb at their arrival at the Twins, before the Red Wedding.
Grey Wind edged forward, tail stiff, watching through slitted eyes of dark gold. When the Freys were a half-dozen yards away Catelyn heard him growl, a deep rumble that seemed almost one with rush of the river. Robb looked startled. “Grey Wind, to me. To me!” Instead the direwolf leapt forward, snarling. (aSoS, Catelyn VI)
George is using our memory of Catelyn’s warning to Robb to keep Grey Wind by his side to sniff out those who may do him harm to make us distrust the boar and Borroq. This only works as a superficial comparison. George RR Martin did his research as a writer when it comes to wolf body language, and both he and his wife are long time sponsors and supporters of wolf sanctuaries. As a consequence George always makes sure to write any of the direwolves’ vocalisations and body language to fit with that of real wolves.
Take Grey Wind’s behavior against Black Walder and the Freys they meet upon arrival at the Twins for example. The stiff tail matches that of a wolf considering the other a threat. Slitting the eyes is an expression of suspicion and fear. A deep rumbling growl is an extremely aggressive warning. And it is followed by a leap forward. Grey Wind is therefore correctly described as regarding Black Walder as a very hostile threat and behaves accordingly.
While Ghost puts himself in between the boar and Jon, he does not leap, but pads forward. This is more befitting with dominant and confident behavior. Without any particular mention of hackles being raised or specifying the tail’s position, we can therefore regard Ghost’s snarl as a caution or warning towards the boar – “You behave, for this is my pack!” and “You’ll have to go through me if you mean Jon any harm.” This snarl is only meant for the boar, not Borroq. This is lightyears away from Grey Wind’s leaping, rumbling growl, stiff tail and slitted eyes towards the Freys.
Tormund reminds us that Ghost’s protective stance against the giant boar is a natural one.
“Boars and wolves,” said Tormund. “Best keep that beast o’ yours locked up tonight. I’ll see that Borroq does the same with his pig.” He glanced up at the darkening sky. “Them’s the last, and none too soon. It’s going to snow all night, I feel it. Time I had a look at what’s on t’other side of all that ice.” (aDwD, Jon XII)
It is to be expected and natural that Ghost considers Borroq’s unknown boar a potential threat, without assuming something nefarious. Now let us inspect the boar’s response to this: the boar is perfectly well behaved and refrains from responding in kind to either Ghost or Jon.
Wait a minute, you might think by now, “Did the boar not threaten Jon at some point?” You are thinking of a moment that occurs far later in the interaction sequence, and it is actually unrelated to either Ghost or Jon. Just when Borroq is about to pass through the gate as the very last of the Free Folk, the last of Tormund’s rearguard, does the boar appear to be close to charging something or someone.
The skinchanger stopped ten yards away. His monster pawed at the mud, snuffling. A light powdering of snow covered the boar’s humped black back. He gave a snort and lowered his head, and for half a heartbeat Jon thought he was about to charge. To either side of him, his men lowered their spears. (aDwD, Jon XII)
The boar does this shortly after snuffling. So, we can safely conclude that this was in response to a smell he picked up. If this was a response to Ghost’s smell, the boar should have done so far earlier: when Ghost put himself between Jon and the boar. This is why we can rule out the boar wanting to charge either Jon or Ghost. So what did he smell? We are told that a light powder snow covers the boar. And since it is snowing, the snow would also drop on the ground. So, could it be the Others that the boar smells? This seems the likeliest answer, for Borroq warns Jon that “they” are coming, shortly after.
“You close it good and tight. They’re coming, crow.” He smiled as ugly a smile as Jon had ever seen and made his way to the gate. The boar stalked after him. The falling snow covered up their tracks behind them. (aDwD, Jon XII)
Because he has an ugly smile, readers tend to consider this as some nasty taunt or joke by Borroq. However, as I point out, the man is just doing the job he is supposed to do as a skinchanger rearguard. He goes through as last, and warns Jon that his boar just smelled the Others coming for them. Jon and his guardsmen mistook the target of the boar’s alarm. And Borroq’s sole crime in his introduction scene is being ugly, which is not really a crime, is it? Instead, it is quite a typical trap of George Martin to mislead the reader.
So, once we scratch away the layer of misdirection, Borroq and his boar plant the seeds that animals can smell the Others. George has refrained from explicitly confirming this in the books as published. But the recent finds in the Cushing Library at Texas A &M University of the draft versions for aFfC and aDwD of 2004 has Ghost confirming how Others smell to him in one of Jon’s wolf dreams.
With the cliff between them, he could not sense his brother, but sometimes when he padded down the long cold burrow under the ice and poked his nose through the hard black bars, he could feel him. The snow was falling where his brother was, covering all the woods in white. And there were hunters near, living men and dead men, and the ones who wore the shapes of men but smelled only of cold. (aFfC draft 2004, Jon I)
The “cliff” that Ghost references in this quote is the “Wall”. On the one hand, this draft version confirms that the magical ward prevents Ghost from “sensing” Summer north of the Wall, as long as Ghost is south of it. And it confirms that Ghost can recognize living men from wights and from Others by smell. He is aware that the Others are not actually men at all, but only wear the shape of men and they smell only of the cold. There are several main reasons why this draft version got scrapped:
- It is too much on the nose (pun intended) about the Wall’s magical interference with sensing who is north of the Wall.
- It is a huge reveal about the Others “wearing” a humanoid shape (see From Sandkings to Nightqueens).
- Once George knew he would end Jon’s arc of aDwD in the cliffhanger he did, it is only logical that he pulled such an early explicit confirmation that Ghost knows what Others smell like. Instead he gave us a hint to it via Borroq’s boar in Jon’s penultimate chapter.
- It creates a situation where the magical ward of the Wall can not only prevent sensing someone or something, but can prevent smell, and thus a potential physical paradox.
You may remember Ghost as nearly taking a bite out of one of Jon’s guards as well as Ghost sniffing or approaching Bowen Marsh after his visit with Jon. The common interpretation of both these scenes is that Ghost is acting hostile to conspirators who plan to assassinate Jon Snow that evening. This interpretation is wrong and does not hold up under closer scrutiny, both for wolf body language and the fact that Ghost becomes aggressive even towards Jon himself. Here is the complete scene about Jon’s two guards standing outside out of fear of Ghost’s wild and aggressive behavior.
Outside the armory, Mully and the Flea stood shivering at guard. “Shouldn’t you be inside, out of this wind?” Jon asked.
“That’d be sweet, m’lord,” said Fulk the Flea, “but your wolf’s in no mood for company today.”
Mully agreed. “He tried to take a bite o’ me, he did.”
“Ghost?” Jon was shocked.
“Unless your lordship has some other white wolf, aye. I never seen him like this, m’lord. All wild-like, I mean.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)
The above quote is the scene readers tend to remember, and the quote that will be used by theorists to argue for example that Mully is one of the conspiritors. But that quote cut off much too early. Jon enters and experiences this:
He was not wrong, as Jon discovered for himself when he slipped inside the doors. The big white direwolf would not lie still. He paced from one end of the armory to the other, past the cold forge and back again. “Easy, Ghost,” Jon called. “Down. Sit, Ghost. Down.” Yet when he made to touch him, the wolf bristled and bared his teeth. It’s that bloody boar. Even in here, Ghost can smell his stink. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
When Jon enters the forge, Ghost is pacing in agitation. And when Jon himself attempts to calm Ghost, Ghost bristles and bares his teeth at Jon. We can conclude that Ghost is restless and extremely upset over something, enough to be aggressive to Jon himself, but I think I can get everybody to agree at least that Jon is not conspiring to kill himself, right? So, Ghost’s behavior in this scene and thus earlier to Mully is not related to a conspiracy to assassinate Jon.
Jon blames it on Ghost being able to smell Borroq’s boar. But if this was true, then his behavior here is far more aggressive with the boar at a safe distance, than when he actually faced the boar north of the Wall, or why he would display this behavior only now, when Borroq’s boar has been within the vicinity for days, and also afterwards when Ghost is much calmer. Nor does it explain the alarmed behavior of Mormont’s raven.
Mormont’s raven seemed agitated too. “Snow,” the bird kept screaming. “Snow, snow, snow.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)
Notice how the raven repeats the word snow four times. Because Samwell taught the ravens to say Snow, Jon’s name, we are bound to assume that is who the raven is referring to. But the raven could also just mean the white stuff falling from the sky. If so, then Ghost and the raven are aggressive and agitated because of what they smell in association to the snow, just like Borroq’s boar seemed to do.
Right before Jon arrived at the forge and the two guards outside, Jon looks at the Wall and the sky above the Wall. He notices clear signs of a snow sky.
He glanced up past the King’s Tower. The Wall was a dull white, the sky above it whiter. A snow sky. “Just pray we do not get another storm.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)
We can determine the source direction of this snow sky is the north: someone standing outside in Castle Black looking at the Wall and the sky above it, must be looking in the northern direction. So, with the precedent of the behavior of Borroq’s boar in the back of our mind, we can see that a snow sky floating in from the north direction is a valid potential cause of Ghost’s aggression, even towards Jon, and for Mormont’s raven screaming snow repeatedly.
Let me make clear, that I am not proposing that Ghost or the raven fear the snow itself. Jon observed far earlier that Ghost actually likes fresh snow.
At the base of the Wall he found Ghost rolling in a snowbank. The big white direwolf seemed to love fresh snow. (aDwD, Jon VI)
It is not the snow itself that sets off alarm bells, but the Others who come with this particular snowstorm rolling in from the north (or caused it).
“What about the Others?”
“[…] The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. […]” (aFfC, Samwell I; and aDwD, Jon II)
So, I propose that Ghost and Mormont’s raven are agitated and alarmed, because they smell the Others being near to the Wall.
Let us now test this working hypothesis for their behavior against their later behavior throughout the day. Shortly after this scene, Jon has Satin fetch Marsh and Yarwick to visit his solar in order to discuss their needs, his plan to man as many castles as he can at the Wall and how to save the survivors at Hardhome.
Jon shooed [Mormont’s raven] off, had Satin start a fire, then sent him out after Bowen Marsh and Othell Yarwyck. “Bring a flagon of mulled wine as well.”
“Three cups, m’lord?”
“Six. Mully and the Flea look in need of something warm. So will you.” […]
Marsh entered snuffling, Yarwyck dour. “Another storm,” the First Builder announced. “How are we to work in this? I need more builders.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)
Jon has his fruitless exchange with both men, and they depart. When Bowen and Othel pass Ghost he sniffs them.
Satin helped them back into their cloaks. As they walked through the armory, Ghost sniffed at them, his tail upraised and bristling. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
This sniffing and bristling is often interpreted as Ghost expressing suspicion of Marsh and Yarwick. But a suspicious wolf would NOT raise his tail vertical. Instead he would narrow his eyes, flatten his ears and the tail would point straight outward, parallel to the floor or ground (like Grey Wind). Ghost’s described posture towards Bowen Marsh is that of dominance. When the tail alone bristles and goes vertically up, without wagging, a wolf is asserting a non-aggressive, relaxed form of dominion, and certainly not expressing suspicion. Marsh or Yarwyck do not even provoke one of Ghost’s silent snarls. Ghost’s wolf body language is neither aggressive or suspicious, just dominance.
So, on the one hand Bowen Marsh’s plan to assassinate Jon seems to not yet have been formed at this point. This only emphasizes how unlikely it was that Ghost’s actual aggression towards Jon and Mully was related to a mutiny plot.
On the other hand, Ghost not being aggressive anymore seems odd in light of my snow-smell hypothesis: if the raven and Ghost were agitated because of the smell of snow, then should they not remain such or become even more aggressive when it actually starts to snow? Not, if the winds have turned so that Ghost and the raven are not downwind anymore. And what do we learn when Bowen and Yarwyck open the door?
The snow was falling heavily outside. “Wind’s from the south,” Yarwyck observed. “It’s blowing the snow right up against the Wall. See?” He was right. The switchback stair was buried almost to the first landing, Jon saw, and the wooden doors of the ice cells and storerooms had vanished behind a wall of white. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
It is a snowstorm alright, except the wind is now blowing from the south, blowing the snow up against the Wall. In other words, the northern winds that blew snow across the Wall, have turned. This means that the Others are now downwind and cannot be smelled anymore by Ghost or the raven. Hence, Ghost and the raven cease to be aggressive or agitated.
The hypothesis holds up to later scenes with Ghost and the raven. When Jon leaves for the Shield Hall with Tormund and his other two guards, after hours of planning with Tormund over the Pink Letter, Ghost is perfectly calm, wanting to pad along with Jon.
Horse and Rory had replaced Fulk and Mully at the armory door with the change of watch. “With me,” Jon told them, when the time came. Ghost would have followed as well, but as the wolf came padding after them, Jon grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and wrestled him back inside. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
There is nothing in the direwolf’s behavior that is cause for alarm. Meanwhile Mormont’s raven is making jokes around Tormund, when Jon and Tormund discuss Selyse’s plans to wed Gerrick Kingsblood’s daughters to three of her Queen’s men, shortly before Clydas gives Jon the Pink Letter.
“He has a little red cock to go with all that red hair, that’s what he has. Raymund Redbeard and his sons died at Long Lake, thanks to your bloody Starks and the Drunken Giant. Not the little brother. Ever wonder why they called him the Red Raven?” Tormund’s mouth split in a gap-toothed grin. “First to fly the battle, he was. ‘Twas a song about it, after. The singer had to find a rhyme for craven, so …” He wiped his nose. “If your queen’s knights want those girls o’ his, they’re welcome to them.”
“Girls,” squawked Mormont’s raven. “Girls, girls.”
That set Tormund to laughing all over again. “Now there’s a bird with sense. How much do you want for him, Snow? I gave you a son, the least you could do is give me the bloody bird.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)
So, George only wrote Ghost and the raven as alarmed and aggressive even to Jon, when the snow sky was gathering above the Wall, coming from the north, and both animals relax once the wind blows from the south and are absolutely calm by late afternoon or dusk. The mutiny plot cannot explain this behavior whatsoever, whereas the cold smell of the Others north of the Wall explains it well, including when the winds turn. The animals were only aggressive when they were downwind of the Others, but relaxed when they were not downwind anymore. This then becomes the circumstantial evidence to the Others being at the other side of the Wall at Castle Black at the moment when Bowen Marsh and his fellow mutineers attempt to kill Jon.
While snow is only sometimes a sign of the Others, they always come with the cold or the cold comes with them. Cold is exactly the last that Jon experiences by the end of his last chapter.
Then Bowen Marsh stood there before him, tears running down his cheeks. “For the Watch.” He punched Jon in the belly. When he pulled his hand away, the dagger stayed where he had buried it.
Jon fell to his knees. He found the dagger’s hilt and wrenched it free. In the cold night air the wound was smoking. “Ghost,” he whispered. Pain washed over him. Stick them with the pointy end. When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold … (aDwD, Jon XIII)
Jon can only feel the cold at the end, never even the fourth knife, which is weird given the three prior wounds: a graze at the neck, a stab at the belly, and one between the shoulder. Of these three only the belly stab can be potentially mortal, but it would take hours and hours to die from it. The belly stab is the wound that smokes, which can only happen in extreme cold. In the infamous prologue of aGoT, Gared explains how the cold causes a numbness to sensations.
“Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end.” (aGoT, Prologue)
Of course, the process that Gared explains normally takes hours. In Jon’s case the sensations follow one another in rapid succession, like some form of flash freeze.
Any scene with wights or others has always involved a drop in temperature because of northern winds, and sudden cooling or extreme cold when they are near. And it is just so in aGoT‘s Prologue. All day prior to Waymar’s fateful duel with the Other, a cold northern wind blew.
A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. (aGoT, Prologue)
When Will glimpses the pale shapes gliding through, Waymar asks him why it is so cold all of a sudden in a manner it was not before.
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. “Can you see anything?” [Waymar] was turning in a slow circle, suddenly wary, his sword in hand. He must have felt them, as Will felt them. There was nothing to see. “Answer me! Why is it so cold?” It was cold. Shivering, Will clung more tightly to his perch. (aGoT, Prologue)
Will also describes Waymar’s physical responses, worded in a manner that we are inclined to interprete them as an expression of emotion, while they are more than likely physical reflexes to the cold.
Will heard the breath go out of Ser Waymar Royce in a long hiss. “Come no farther,” the lordling warned. His voice cracked like a boy’s. He threw the long sable cloak back over his shoulders, to free his arms for battle, and took his sword in both hands. The wind had stopped. It was very cold. […] Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. (aGoT, Prologue)
Waymar’s voice likely cracks from the cold. Even the hiss of his breadth may be due to the cold and having trouble with breathing.
Curiously, Waymar uses a challenge to the Other that is only phrased in that same way once: by Jon. When he sees snowflakes dance as he is about to go through the gate back into Castle Black after all the wildlings went through, and Borroq warned Jon that they are coming, Jon translates their air dance as a challenge by the Others for Jon to dance with them.
A snowflake danced upon the air. Then another. Dance with me, Jon Snow, he thought. You’ll dance with me anon. (aDwD, Jon XII)
Dancing and the dance is a regular euphemism throughout the series for war, a fight or duel. But this particular phrase is unique for Waymar and Jon alone, and both tied to the Others. Alys Karstark makes a close remark, but it is conditional only – “you could dance with me“, after which she adds, “You danced with me anon.”
And of course, Waymar’s wound steams like Jon’s.
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. (aGoT, Prologue)
Blue-eyed dead Othor and Jafer were carried through the gate into Castle Black on Jeor’s orders, instead of being burned north of the Wall. When Jon and the rest of the Night’s Watch ride for the Wall with the two wighted dead men, it is still a hot summer day.
The day was grey, damp, overcast, the sort of day that made you wish for rain. No wind stirred the wood; the air hung humid and heavy, and Jon’s clothes clung to his skin. It was warm. Too warm. The Wall was weeping copiously, had been weeping for days, and sometimes Jon even imagined it was shrinking. (aGoT, Jon VII)
After Jeor tells him of the news about Ned Stark having been arrested for treason, Jon leaves the tower to have his dinner at the mess hall. By then a north wind has rises and it is much colder.
The wind was rising, and it seemed colder in the yard than it had when he’d gone in. Spirit summer was drawing to an end. […] A north wind had begun to blow by the time the sun went down. Jon could hear it skirling against the Wall and over the icy battlements as he went to the common hall for the evening meal.(aGoT, Jon VII)
When Jon sits in his cell after attacking Alliser Thorne, we witness Ghost snarling at Jon and having scratched gouges into the door to get out, combined with Jon experiencing an extreme cold.
When he woke, his legs were stiff and cramped and the candle had long since burned out. Ghost stood on his hind legs, scrabbling at the door. Jon was startled to see how tall he’d grown. “Ghost, what is it?” he called softly. The direwolf turned his head and looked down at him, baring his fangs in a silent snarl. Has he gone mad? Jon wondered. “It’s me, Ghost,” he murmured, trying not to sound afraid. Yet he was trembling, violently. When had it gotten so cold? Ghost backed away from the door. There were deep gouges where he’d raked the wood. Jon watched him with mounting disquiet. “There’s someone out there, isn’t there?” he whispered. Crouching, the direwolf crept backward, white fur rising on the back of his neck. The guard, he thought, they left a man to guard my door, Ghost smells him through the door, that’s all it is. Slowly, Jon pushed himself to his feet. He was shivering uncontrollably, wishing he still had a sword. (aGoT, Jon VII)
Of course the crucial aspect here is that Othor and Jafer were already wighted before they were carried south of the Wall.
Dywen sucked at his wooden teeth. “Might be they didn’t die here. Might be someone brought ’em and left ’em for us. A warning, as like.” The old forester peered down suspiciously. “And might be I’m a fool, but I don’t know that Othor never had no blue eyes afore.”
Ser Jaremy looked startled. “Neither did Flowers,” he blurted, turning to stare at the dead man. (aGoT, Jon VII)
So, in aGoT, we have a situation where “sleeping” (inactive) wights can be carried south of the Wall. And while first reads may give a reader the impression that Othor and Jafer are acting on memory, the north winds rising suggests that the Others are directing them remotely from north of the Wall. The Wall may be able to prevent an active wight and Others from crossing, but it does not prevent the Others from using their magic, once a wight is south of the Wall.
At the Fist of the First Men, Chett experiences an extreme cold the day prior to the attack of the wights and how one of the dogs snarls at him.
The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent. The big black bitch had taken one sniff at the bear tracks, backed off, and skulked back to the pack with her tail between her legs. The dogs huddled together miserably on the riverbank as the wind snapped at them. Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather. It was too bloody cold for man or beast, but here they were. […] “Seven hells.” He gave the leashes a hard yank to get the dogs’ attention. “Track, you bastards. That’s a bear print. You want some meat or no? Find!” But the hounds only huddled closer, whining. Chett snapped his short lash above their heads, and the black bitch snarled at him. (aSoS, Prologue)
At night, as Chett lies waiting for the hour to kill Samwell, it starts to snow and his beard is frozen with icicles, not unlike Tormund’s in Jon’s last chapter of aDwD. And here we also have ravens muttering and quorking snow.
Ice caked his beard all around his mouth. […] He could hardly breathe. […] He got to his knees, and something wet and cold touched his nose. Chett looked up. Snow was falling. He could feel tears freezing to his cheeks. […] It was a heavy fall, thick white flakes coming down all about him. […] 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. […] One of the ravens quorked. “Snow,” another muttered, peering through the bars with black eyes. The first added a “Snow” of its own. (aSoS, Prologue)
The wildling [Tormund] arrived red-faced, shouting for a horn of ale and something hot to eat. He had ice in his beard and more crusting his mustache. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
This is the first precedent where we witness snow as a phenomenon in association with the Others and the wights they direct.. More, the aSoS Prologue also involves an assassination plot: Samwell and Jeor were to be killed. And later, Samwell’s POV in aSoS proves that the attack involves more than zombies alone: he meets with an Other as they flee from the Fist and ends up killing it with dragonglass.
The wind sighed through the trees, driving a fine spray of snow into their faces. The cold was so bitter that Sam felt naked. […] There was only the [torch] Grenn carried, the flames rising from it like pale orange silks. He could see through them, to the black beyond. That torch will burn out soon, he thought, and we are all alone, without food or friends or fire. But that was wrong. They weren’t alone at all. […] Hoarfrost covered [the horse] like a sheen of frozen sweat, and a nest of stiff black entrails dragged from its open belly. On its back was a rider pale as ice. […] [Sam] was so scared he might have pissed himself all over again, but the cold was in him, a cold so savage that his bladder felt frozen solid. The Other slid gracefully from the saddle to stand upon the snow. Sword-slim it was, and milky white. Its armor rippled and shifted as it moved, and its feet did not break the crust of the new-fallen snow. […] The wights had been slow clumsy things, but the Other was light as snow on the wind. 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. (aSoS, Samwell I)
We get similar signs in Bran’s chapter with Coldhands in the final stretch before the entrance of Bloodraven’s cave: a raven screaming, sharp cold, and a bristling Summer.
Something about the way the raven screamed sent a shiver running up Bran’s spine. […] But the air was sharp and cold and full of fear. Even Summer was afraid. The fur on his neck was bristling. […] “They are here.” (aDwD, Bran II)
Hodor’s beard and mustache is iced.
Icicles hung from the brown briar of [Hodor’s] beard, and his mustache was a lump of frozen snot, glittering redly in the light of sunset. (aDwD, Bran II)
Bran mentions how Summer can smell Varamyr’s wolf pack when Summer is downwind from them. So, here George suggests the concept of smelling a threat when the wolf is downwind.
“Where?” Meera’s voice was hushed.
“Close. I don’t know. Somewhere.”
“Those wolves are close as well,” Bran warned them. “The ones that have been following us. Summer can smell them whenever we’re downwind.” (aDwD, Bran II)
And when Meera comments that the way looks clear, she sounds like readers thinking, George does not show us explicitly that Others are present north of the Wall at Castle Black.
Meera eyed the hill above. “The way looks clear.”
“Looks,” the ranger muttered darkly. “Can you feel the cold? There’s something here. Where are they?” (aDwD, Bran II)
But Coldhands corrects Meera and the reader: if someone feels an extreme cold, then they are there.
And when Bran’s tears freeze, Coldhands warns that if they are not here yet, they will be soon.
Bran blinked back a tear and felt it freeze upon his cheek. Coldhands took Hodor by the arm. “The light is fading. If they’re not here now, they will be soon. Come.” (aDwD, Bran II)
While Jon notes that Bowen Marsh has tears streaming from his eyes, we can put question marks behind the fact whether these tears are actually streaming and not instead frozen icicles on his cheeks. Meanwhile what causes Bowen Marsh to weep to begin with? Extreme cold dehydrates our eyes, prompting a response by our tear ducts to produce tears to water the eyes. This is the reason why Chett and Bran (and Hodor) produce tears. It is merely our assumption that Bowen is weeping for emotional reasons, instead as a physiological reflex to the extreme cold that Jon describes.
Note that the wight attack in Bran’s chapter happens in front of a cave with a magical ward like that of the Wall. And while the wights and the Others are unable to pass the magical ward into the cave, in Bran’s last chapter we learn that more wights keep gathering in front of the entrance and snow is piling up like a wall against the cave.
Snowflakes drifted down soundlessly to cloak the soldier pines and sentinels in white. The drifts grew so deep that they covered the entrance to the caves, leaving a white wall that Summer had to dig through whenever he went outside to join his pack and hunt. (aDwD, Bran III)
Both with the magical ward and this white snow wall in front of the entrance building, George is setting up a further parallel between the cave and the Wall.
Jon had two dead wildlings carried from the weirwood grove north of the Wall into Castle Black.
The Hornfoot man could not sit a saddle and had to be tied over the back of a garron like a sack of grain; so too the pale-faced crone with the stick-thin limbs, whom they had not been able to rouse. They did the same with the two corpses, to the puzzlement of Iron Emmett. “They will only slow us, my lord,” he said to Jon. “We should chop them up and burn them.”
“No,” said Jon. “Bring them. I have a use for them.” […] The living wildlings Jon sent off to have their wounds and frostbites tended. Some hot food and warm clothes would restore most of them, he hoped, though the Hornfoot man was like to lose both feet. The corpses he consigned to the ice cells. (aDwD, Jon VII)
Jon keeps them in the ice cells of the Wall and explains to Bowen Marsh he hopes they will turn and become wights in order to learn more about wights.
Finally the Lord Steward cleared his throat. “Your lordship knows best, I am sure. Might I ask about these corpses in the ice cells? They make the men uneasy. And to keep them under guard? Surely that is a waste of two good men, unless you fear that they …”
“… will rise? I pray they do.”
Septon Cellador paled. “Seven save us.” Wine dribbled down his chin in a red line. “Lord Commander, wights are monstrous, unnatural creatures. Abominations before the eyes of the gods. You … you cannot mean to try to talk with them?”
“Can they talk?” asked Jon Snow. “I think not, but I cannot claim to know. Monsters they may be, but they were men before they died. How much remains? The one I slew was intent on killing Lord Commander Mormont. Plainly it remembered who he was and where to find him.” […] “My lord father used to tell me that a man must know his enemies. We understand little of the wights and less about the Others. We need to learn.” (aDwD, Jon VIII)
The two corpses in the ice cells are mentioned a third and last time in Jon’s last chapter, in relation to the snowstorm.
The switchback stair was buried almost to the first landing, Jon saw, and the wooden doors of the ice cells and storerooms had vanished behind a wall of white. “How many men do we have in ice cells?” he asked Bowen Marsh.
“Four living men. Two dead ones.” […] The corpses. Jon had almost forgotten them. He had hoped to learn something from the bodies they’d brought back from the weirwood grove, but the dead men had stubbornly remained dead. […] “What would the lord commander like us to do with his corpses?” asked Marsh when the living men had been moved.
“Leave them.” If the storm entombed them, well and good. He would need to burn them eventually, no doubt, but for the nonce they were bound with iron chains inside their cells. That, and being dead, should suffice to hold them harmless. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
Since the rule of three applies, readers speculate that we will see these two rise as wights at some point. And the readers who do suspect that the men screaming in the last paragraphs while Wyck and Marsh attempt to assassinate Jon are doing so on account of the appearance of wights, will often propose these two have been wighted and are wreaking havoc.
These two corpses serve to plant the seed of Others wightifying corpses at Castle Black, but I do not regard them to be the lethal threat: the iron chains will keep them in position. In the last mention of them though, George gives us a hint how to figure out the imminent threat: the snowstorm has created a wall of white, the same way a wall of snow was created at Bloodraven’s cave in Bran’s last chapter. When Bran traversed the fresh snow towards the cave in his second chapter, Bran and his friends are attacked by wights buried beneath the fresh snow that fell until three days before.
A hand, he saw, as the rest of the wight came bursting from beneath the snow. Hodor kicked at it, slamming a snow-covered heel full into the thing’s face, but the dead man did not even seem to feel it. Then the two of them were grappling, punching and clawing at each other, sliding down the hill. […] All around him, wights were rising from beneath the snow. (aDwD, Bran II)
And this brings me back to Borroq’s boar. Aside from Jon blaming Ghost’s aggression on Borroq’s boar, Jon’s thirteenth chapter also tells us that Borroq and his boar reside at Castle Black’s lichyard, and that the boar has been rooting in the soil of the graves.
Until such time, Borroq had taken up residence in one of the ancient tombs beside the castle lichyard. The company of men long dead seemed to suit him better than that of the living, and his boar seemed happy rooting amongst the graves, well away from other animals. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
Yes, Castle Black has a lichyard. In fact, George introduced us to the lichyard both early in aFfC and aDwD, when Gilly, Samwell and maester Aemon depart to Eastwatch. In Craster and His Wives I explain how Gilly serves as a stand-in character for the corpse queen (or the Mother of the Others), and having her be a commanding presence in the scene at the lichyard creates a visual pun of Gilly as corpse queen. The lichyard thus has already been framed in connection to the Others upon introduction.
While most of us did not forget about the two corpses in the ice cells or the boar, the lichyard has slipped the minds of most of us. Most readers hardly registered that the boar has basically been loosening the soil of those graves. Hmmm, not unlike Mance opening graves in search of a certain horn.
Ygritte: “[…] We opened half a hundred graves and let all those shades loose in the world, and never found the Horn of Joramun to bring this cold thing down!” (aSoS, Jon IV)
And what is certain: while septon Cellador is horrified over two chained corpses in an ice cell, neither he or any other, including Jon, had the wisdom to burn the hundreds if not thousands “men long dead” in there. So the two chained corpses in the ice cell are not the danger, but the potential army (company) of wights lying in wait beneath loosened soil are. Just as in Bran’s arc, the buried wights are the threat.
Another pointer to the true threat in parallel to Bran’s chapter comes from Mel.
“Borroq is the least of your concerns. This ranging …” (aDwD, Jon XIII)
Mel’s phrase is a parallel to Coldhands’ reply to Bran worrying over Varamyr’s wolf pack that Summer can smell when downwind to them.
“Wolves are the least of our woes,” said Coldhands. (aDwD, Bran II)
Notice that Mel begins to say something about a ranging, before Jon interrupts her. Mel never gets to finish her sentence, so this was purposefully added as a reference to Coldhands who is often called the ranger by Bran. And both the wolf pack and the boar have in common that they are a skinchanger’s animals.
During Jon’s last meeting with Marsh and Yarwyck, we get a foreshadowing.
As for Borroq, Othell Yarwyck claimed the woods north of Stonedoor were full of wild boars. Who was to say the skinchanger would not make his own pig army? (aDwD, Jon XIII)
Othell does not call it a boar army, but a pig army. In Craster’s Black Blooded Curse, I argued that George equates pigs symbolically to humans and eating pork to cannibalism. The most glaring examples are:
Nearby, a small girl pulled carrots from a garden, naked in the rain, while two women tied a pig for slaughter. The animal’s squeals were high and horrible, almost human in their distress. (aCoK, Jon III)
When [Samwell] looked at the fire, he thought he saw Bannen sitting up, his hands coiling into fists as if to fight off the flames that were consuming him, but it was only for an instant, before the swirling smoke hid all. The worst thing was the smell, though. If it had been a foul unpleasant smell he might have stood it, but his burning brother smelled so much like roast pork that Sam’s mouth began to water, […] (aSoS, Samwell II)
And in the latter association to pork or pigs, George included the image of a dead man rising. So, by association the foreshadowed pig army implies an army of wights. The sole potential wight army rising south of the Wall are those unburned dead in the lichyard.
I have more hints and foreshadowing in sky descriptions that predict the appearance of some Others north of Castle Black during Jon’s last chapter, but I am reserving them for another essay of the Blood Seal Thesis. If the detective work of Ghost’s body language in relation to the weather analysis and the precedent of prior experiences with the Others are not enough for you to seriously consider the presence of the Others at the other side of the Wall when Wyck and Bowen Marsh attack Jon as a valid proposal, then sky descriptions will not persuade you either.
I may have managed to persuade you to consider the possibility that the Others are here and that an army of wights is rising from their uprooted graves, causing men to scream in the background of the assassination attempt. But there is also one huge caveat: there seems to be an enormous difference between the Others reactivating and directing wights like Othor and Jafer, who were already wighted long before they were carried through Castle Black’s tunnel by the Night’s Watch and wightifying the dead south of the Wall. After all, the Wall is not just a physical barrier, but a magical one too.
“The Wall. The Wall is more than just ice and stone, [Coldhands] said. There are spells woven into it . . . old ones, and strong. He cannot pass beyond the Wall.” It grew very quiet in the castle kitchen then. […] Beyond the gates the monsters live, and the giants and the ghouls, he remembered Old Nan saying, but they cannot pass so long as the Wall stands strong. So go to sleep, my little Brandon, my baby boy. You needn’t fear. There are no monsters here. (aSoS, Bran IV)
In fact, the magical ward is far more important than the physical barrier. Bloodraven’s cave has a similar ward, but the entrance allows the living to cross to and fro since there is no physical barrier.
“Can you feel the cold? There’s something here. Where are they?”
“Inside the cave?” suggested Meera.
“The cave is warded. They cannot pass.” The ranger used his sword to point. “You can see the entrance there. Halfway up, between the weirwoods, that cleft in the rock.”
“I see it,” said Bran. Ravens were flying in and out.
“There’s a passage there. Steep and twisty at first, a runnel through the rock. If you can reach it, you’ll be safe.”
“What about you?
“The cave is warded.” (aDwD, Bran II)
How much this is a barrier I already emphasized in the Night’s King series, and I argued that one of the uses of the Night’s King to the corpse queen was as a smuggler to get her south of the Wall, like Davos had to smuggle Mel beyond the ward of the Storm’s End to birth her shadow assassin. It may not be a barrier against smell, wind and snow, but if it was never a barrier against the Others raising an army of the dead of a lichyard, it makes little sense the Others bothered with Othor and Jafer being carried through the Wall by the Night’s Watch. I expect the magical ward from preventing the Others to wightify anyone who was not yet a wight north of the Wall, even though it allows them to activate a sleeper wight.
In other words something must occur to the warding spell of the Wall, before the Others can raise the dead of the lichyard. The Blood Seal Thesis proposes that a warding spell must be locked in place with a blood seal. Since a seal is also a stamp, this implies that the warding spell becomes imprinted with that particular blood mix of the person shedding their blood to fixate it. As a consequence the seal can only be broken by shedding the blood of someone with a similar blood make up. In other words, the seal is a person. And obviously, I am proposing that Jon is a blood match and therefore the seal.
So, when Wyck grazes Jon’s neck and his blood drops onto the snow that was also blown against the ice of the Wall, the Wall’s warding spell was broken. The circumstantial evidence for the proposed concept of a Blood Seal is too expansive for this essay, but I will provide you with hints and references to the breaking of the magical ward and how this is tied to the foreshadowing of a wight army.
In the paragraph where Jon reveals to the reader that Borroq has made the lichyard his temporary residence with his boar, we also learn where Borroq is to live permanently.
The skinchanger [Borroq] was to accompany Soren Shieldbreaker to Stonedoor once the wayns carrying the Sealskinner‘s clan to Greenguard returned. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
It is quite doubtful whether Borroq and his boar will ever survive the night of Jon’s last chapter in aDwD to move to Stonedoor, so this plan only serves to give the reader hints, and the names used are eye opening: Shieldbreaker, Sealskinner, Greenguard and Stonedoor. In-world these are the names of two castles of the Night’s Watch and two names of prominent wildling leaders. The foreshadowing does not involve the actual locations or these two men, but the story these names foretell.
Let us start with the name Greenguard. The warding spells of the Wall, Storm’s End and Bloodraven’s cave are all attributed to children of the forest, who practice green magic.
“Legend has it that the giants helped raise the Wall, using their great strength to wrestle the blocks of ice into place. […] These same legends also say that the children of the forest—who did not themselves build walls of either ice or stone—would contribute their magic to the construction.” (tWoIaF – the Wall and Beyond: the Night’s Watch)
“A seventh castle he raised, most massive of all. Some said the children of the forest helped him build [Storm’s End], shaping the stones with magic; (aCoK, Catelyn III)
Hence we can say that a green guard is a green magic warding spell. And obviously in this case this is about the magical ward of the Wall. Though I do believe the conquering of Storm’s End by Aegon and the breach of Bloodraven’s cave may serve as a parallel in tWoW.
In the foreshadowing the Sealskinner is on his way to this green guard, or the magical Wall. We recognize a reference to the blood seal concept that I propose in the first part. Meanwhile Skinner is the name of one of Ramsay’s Bastard Boys. Ramsay Bolton has several men-at-arms appointed by Roose to be of Ramsay’s service. Skinner was the one who flayed Theon’s fingers on Ramsay’s orders. He also claims that Ramsay killed his trueborn brother Domeric Bolton. It is possible that Skinner is one of the hunting party that may be on its way to Castle Black, but Skinner’s name is mostly yet another reference, to George’s novelette The Skin Trade. In that story, the Skinner is a supernatural shapeshifting assassin who in one of its shapes has knives for fingers. It uses mirrors as doors to traverse dimensions.
Skinner,” Steven called. The surface of the mirrors seemed to ripple and bulge, like a wave cresting on some quicksilver sea. The fog was thinning, Willie realized with sudden terror; he could see it clearer now, and he knew it could see him. And suddenly Willie Flambeaux knew what was happening, knew that when the fog cleared the mirrors wouldn’t be mirrors anymore; they’d be doors, doors, and the skinner would come…(Dreamsongs II, the Skin Trade)
The Skinner’s targets are werewolves on Steven’s orders. Steven has werewolf blood, but so pureblooded (inbred) that he himself cannot work the transformation from man into werewolf. But he discovered that when he wears the skin or pelt of another werewolf who can work the change, that he can steal their power for a short while. Both The Fattest Leech and Melanie Lot Seven have pointed out how Steven is a proto-Ramsay, while Willie Flambeaux (flaming sword), a werewolf of mutt descent (bastard) is a proto-Jon.
The above quote with Steven calling for the skinner to go after Willie via the mirrors follows a scene where Willie was wounded and his blood ended up on the mirrors of a funhouse.
Willie looked into the mirrors. The reflections were gone. Willie, Steven, the moon, all gone. There was blood on the mirrors and they were full of fog, a silvery pale fog that shimmered as it moved. Something was moving through the fog, sliding from mirror to mirror to mirror, around and around. Something hungry that wanted to get out. (Dreamsongs II, the Skin Trade)
So, for aSoIaF, skinner serves as a double reference to both the supernatural Others as well as Ramsay, who flays people and steals first his brother’s birthright, then the Hornwood lands and finally Winterfell via a marriage to a fake wolf. And regardless of the real author of the Pink Letter, it was signed and “sealed” in Ramsay’s name.
Bastard, was the only word written outside the scroll. No Lord Snow or Jon Snow or Lord Commander. Simply Bastard. And the letter was sealed with a smear of hard pink wax. “You were right to come at once,” Jon said. You were right to be afraid. He cracked the seal, flattened the parchment, and read. (aDwD, Jon XIII)
That Pink Letter itself serves as a sealskinner. In my proposal of the blood seal concept, Jon himself is the blood seal that preserves the Wall’s green magical guard or ward. And the assassination attempt on Jon’s life occurs after he read the Pink Letter in the shield hall. And of course we can also see how the Sealskinner is a dual reference to the Others as supernatural beings coming through a mirror after the blood seal of the green guard is cracked.
The Shieldbreaker does not require much explanation. That leaves us with Stonedoor. The word door aligns with the Skinner reference: a mirror becomes a door. So why stone? Well, we tend to think of the Wall as being physically made from ice, but the Wall is made from earth, stone and ice. What happens if the magical ward is broken? Others can do with ice whatever they wish: dissolve it into mist for example. What remains of the Wall if they do? All that remains is stone section, and then the ice mirror has turned into a stone door. And without the ward or a cracked seal on the ward, the Others’ magic can raise that “pig army” from the graves. It is after all at Stonedoor that Yarwyck foretells Borroq might be able to raise a pig army.
So, basically that one sentence with those four foreshadowing references can be translated to mean that after the arrival of the Others and the Pink Letter to the Wall, the shield will be broken and turned into a stone door as well as an army of wights will rise from the lichyard. And since there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support the proposal that the Others are at the other side of the Wall at Castle Black the day the Pink Letter arrived, the breaking of the shield of the ream occurs that very same night. (For an extensive analysis on hints and clues for the Blood Seal, see Quoth the Raven)
Tormund reveals that the Others have nibbled at his thousands of wildlings during their trek south, and he is unwilling to reveal too much about them north of the Wall. The last wildlings that pass through the Wall are Tormund’s rearguard and best men. They are last as their main responsibility is to guard and keep other people alive. Borroq and his boar belong to Tormund’s rearguard and he is the very last wildling to pass through. We can safely assume this is because as skinchanger with far more experience with the Others than Jon, Borroq can raise the alarm the earliest when the Others are near. When the wild boar changes his stance to that of a charge, this is not related to Ghost or Jon, but immediately after the boar is snuffling the ground and snow is falling down. And this is followed by Borroq’ warning that the Others are coming.
The aggressive behavior of Ghost, including towards Jon, and Mormont’s raven acting in high alert is caused by them smelling the Others coming for Castle Black, for this behavior coincides with a snowsky rolling in from the north and any prior signs of the nearness of the Others. In these examples involving canines, the animal even turns or snarls at their caretaker. Later in the day, Ghost and the raven relax. This coincides with the wind turning, and blowing from the south. They are calmer and less aggressive from this point onwards, because the Others are now downwind, and neither Ghost or the raven can smell them anymore.
The proposals that Ghost and the raven are aggressive because of the plot to assassinate Jon are wrong. Ghost shows no aggression towards Bowen Marsh whatsoever, but relaxed dominance. Meanwhile Ghost nearly attacks Jon himself far ealier, when the snowsky was drifting in from the north.
Northern winds, snowfall, alarmed and aggressive, fearful animals, smoking wounds, extreme cold and the reflext from the tear ducts to water the eyes with tears freezing on the spot, and icicles on beard and mustache are all visible tell-tale signs that accompany a trap or attack by either themselves or wights. Since all these follow one after the other throughout Jon’s last day in aDwD, this mounts to a pile of circumstantial evidence to take the notion that the Others are present at the other side of the Wall quite serious.
On top of that we have numerous foreshadowing hints that not the two dead men chained in the ice cells are the danger, but the hundreds if not thousands forgotten dead brothers buried in the lichyard. Borroq’s boar has been rooting through the soil of those graves, thereby loosening the earth, making it easier for wights to rise from the lichyard. The few Others waiting at the other side of the Wall at Castle Black do not need to bring an army of wights from Hardhome. Once the magical ward of the Wall cracks or breaks, their magic can raise a lichyard ‘pig’ army. And this cracking or breaking is tied to the assassination attempt of Jon. It is thus entirely possible that the men screaming in the background while Wick slashes at Jon for a second time are screaming because dead men and dismembered arms come back to life.