The Plutonian Others

(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:

Night King or Night’s King

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 permanent wasn’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.

Skroth

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.

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.

Children of the Forest speak their own True Tongue (or Truth Tongue?). The language needs to be sung, as it sings a song of earth, which is why Bran starts to refer to them as Singers (of the Forest). Maester Yandel refers to the legend of Brandon the Builder learning the speech of the Singers, and that it sounds “like the song of stones in a brook, or the wind through leaves, or the rain upon the water.” Bran too compares the song of the True Tongue as “pure as winter air“.

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.

Inhuman Humanoids

Other_GoT_illustrated_prologue
A Game of Thrones: illustrated (Bantam Books)

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)

An Other, by Marc SimonettiSam 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 lifeinhuman, 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.

Plutonians

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.

Helium Hydrogen Nitrogen Carbon Monoxide
Density 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!

The name choice for this planet could not be more apt with its atmosphere and surface consisting basically of matter that kill Earth life. The same Pluto also contains traces of solid carbon monoxide and methane on its surface and atmosphere. If the Others are a lifeform built from the same solid frozen molecular matter on Pluto, then they basically are Plutonians, or natural born killers. (also see The Fattest Leech’s quotes about Lovecraft’s Deep Ones losing the battle against some Plutonian half-crustaceans conquering the North)

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.

Blue_hazes_over_backlit_Pluto
Departure shot of Pluto by New Horizons, showing Pluto’s atmosphere backlit by the Sun. The blue color is close to what a human eye would have seen, and is caused by layers of haze in the atmosphere. (NASA)

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.

 

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.

hemocyanin
(left) the hemocyanin molecule; (right) horseshoe crab “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)

And Sansa notices that despite the sweet perfume scents that Lysa wears, beneath it is a sour milk smell.

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)

And pretty much every faction of Qarth is implicated to using poison. We get the mention that the Pureborn are famed for offering poisoned wine in a scene where Rhaegal mislikes the wine that Xaro offers Dany while riding a palanquin. The pomegranate taste and the fact that Dany does not get ill from it show that the wine is only poisoned in a metaphorical sense – the topic of discussion is Xaro’s offer of marriage where he hopes to get a dragon out of it.

He also gave her a wing of his palace with several scrying elements (such as pool and tower), with only one being related to spiders – a warlock’s maze. The palace of the Undying is a warlock’s maze. A spider’s web can be called a maze. And at the heart of a maze waits the spider to catch its prey.

web_maze

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 the Others “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.

Golden blood

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).

Spider_internal_anatomy-en
Diagram of the internal anatomy of a female two-lunged spider. (Wikipedia)

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.

Spiderants

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.

The Manticore

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.

Spider Crabs

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)

Roose Bolton

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.

As with Varys, Lysa Arryn and the Qartheen, once again the Boltons are tied to smelly business – Reek. The original Reek was a manservant at the Dreadfort before he was gifted to Ramsay. He seemed to be born with a bad smell, though he bathed as often as he could, drenched himself in the prior Lady Bolton’s perfume and once even tried to drink the perfume. After, the original is killed, Ramsay pretends to be Reek and makes sure not to bathe to mimic his former servant. Eventually Theon is reekified instead, also smelling badly, having to sleep with the dogs.

Fire Spiders and Ice Dragons

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)

Sounds like a good and proper evil ice spider. Except those tales of her are twisted truths, or as Bennis explains to Dunk, “There’s truths and truths, lunk. Some don’t serve.” As you know, from the trail of the red stallion, when something is called ‘red’, they are not exactly who they say they are or who others claim them to be. And so it is with these witchy poisoner tales. Her first husband was twelve and died in battle, squiring for her father. At the age of thirteen she was wed to her second husband of fifty-four, who died of a chill. Her baby son born half a year later had been too weak. The third husband choked on a chicken bone and the fourth husband died of the Great Spring Sickness that killed millions of people (including King Daeron and his grandson Prince Valarr).

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.

818px-House_WebberRohanne 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.

The cursed souls of Eddard and Robert

As I have shown in Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts, George has Lyanna tied and surrounded with basically every possible symbol and feature of the mythical Persephone who was abducted by Hades and made Queen of the Underworld. Persephone’s task as Queen of the Underworld was to ensure that a soul’s curses were visited upon. Already during the visit of Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon we learn both men are haunted by the past, and one of the major plot arcs in aGoT is how both men are sick in their souls, each in their own way, and eventually come to their doom when they join hands again as the theoretical two most powerful men in all of Westeros.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Kingmonkey for his great essay “Eddard in Wonderland” which inspired me to approach the books from a chthonic angle.

Melinoe’s nightmare

Eddard Stark is regularly visited with nightmarish, strange dreams ever since Lyanna’s death, all involving the Underworld.

Sansa cried herself to sleep, Arya brooded silently all day long, and Eddard Stark dreamed of a frozen hell reserved for the Starks of Winterfell.(aGoT, Eddard IV)

This frozen hell cannot but be a reference to the crypts of Winterfell. Hell is another name for the Underworld. It is up in the North, cold, and related to winter. And it is the sole place we know of that is reserved for the Starks of Winterfell, with already assigned empty tombs for whichever time they die.

It would be good to return to Winterfell. He ought never have left. His sons were waiting there. Perhaps he and Catelyn would make a new son together when he returned, they were not so old yet. And of late he had often found himself dreaming of snow, of the deep quiet of the wolfswood at night. (aGoT, Eddard VIII)

While Ned interpretes these as dreams of longing for Winterfell, the dream contains five chthonic references we are already acquainted with since his visit to the crypts: snow, silence, wolves, forest, darkness. In other words, the dream is reminding Ned there is no way back, only the Underworld awaits him.

His most famous and most analyzed dream is the one about his confrontation with the Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy. A most excellent analysis (must read!) of this dream as a Celtic porter scene was done by Kingmonkey at Westeros.org: Eddard in Wonderland. But the same dream can also be analyzed from a chthonic lens, and complement Kingmonkey’s. I mentioned how Persephone has a daughter called Melinoe. She was a chthonic moon goddess who visited mortals with night terrors (nightmares) by taking strange forms.

She drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms,
As she appears in weird shapes and forms,
Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness,
And all this in hostile encounters in the gloom of night. (fragment of Orphic Hymn of Melinoe)

This Orphic Hymn is an excellent description of Ned’s portal dream of the Kingsguard:

  • His own bannermen appear as shadows, grey wraiths on misty horses with shadow swords  = weird shapes, forms, now shadowy
  • But the three Kingsguard’s faces burn clear = now plain to the eye
  • Arthur Dayne’s Dawn is pale as milkglass, alive with light = now shining in the darkness
  • Ned and his men come together with the three Kingsguard in a rush of steel and shadow, Lyanna screaming his name, and a storm of rose petals blowing = hostile encounter
  • He wakes to moonlight = gloom of night
  • 3 x “now” appears in the dream: “Then or now“, “Now it begins,” and “Now it ends.” (Keep the last two phrases in the back of your mind, and recall how “almost at the end” appeared in Bran’s paragraph in the crypts after Ned’s death)

George included every shape and form that is typical for Melinoe related nightmares. The dream is not just a portal scene, but a nightmarish chthonic curse born from Lyanna beyond the grave upon his very soul.

In the dream his friends rode with him, as they had in life…Lord Dustin on his great red stallion. Ned had known their faces as well as he knew his own once, but the years leech at a man’s memories, even those he has vowed never to forget. In the dream they were only shadows, grey wraiths on horses made of mist.
They were seven, facing three. In the dream as it had been in life. Yet these were no ordinary three. They waited before the round tower, the red mountains of Dorne at their backs, their white cloaks blowing in the wind. And these were no shadows; their faces burned clear, even now.
[…]
“The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” said Ser Arhur. He donned his helm.
“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.
Ned’s wraiths moved up behind him, with shadow swords in hand. They were seven against three.
“And now it begins,” said Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. He unsheathed Dawn and held it with both hands. The blade was pale as milkglass, alive with light.
“No,” Ned said with sadness in his voice. “Now it ends.” As they came together in a rush of steel and shadow, he could hear Lyanna screaming, “Eddard!”. A storm of rose petals blew across blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death.
[…]
Groaning, Eddard Stark opened his eyes. Moonlight streamed through the tall windows of the Tower of the Hand. (aGoT, Eddard X)

Though Ned wakes from the dream, the rest of that chapter repeats several features of the dream, revealing that in fact the waking life is a repeat of Melinoe nightmare. It is still night and Persephone’s moon daughter is still hard at work. It starts with only seeing shadows, then light being brought and conflict between Ned, Robert and Cersei.

“Lord Eddard?” a shadow stood over the bed […] “Six days and seven nights.” The voice was Vayon Poole’s. […]”The King left orders,” Vayon Poole told him when the cup was empty. “He would speak with you, my lord.”
“On the morrow,” Ned said. “When I am stronger.” He could not face Robert now. The dream had left him weak as a kitten
“My lord,” Poole said, “he commanded us to send you to him the moment you opened your eyes.” The steward busied himself lighting a bedside candle.
[…]
“Whatever happens,” Ned said, “I want my daughters kept safe. I fear this is only the beginning.”
[…]
“I gave them to the silent sisters, to be sent north to Winterfell. Jory would want to lie beside his grandfather.”
It would have to be his grandfather, for Jory’s father was buried far to the South… Ned had pulled the tower down afterward, and used its bloody stones to build eight cairns upon the ridge. It was said that Rhaegar had named that place the tower of joy, but for Ned it was a bitter memory. They had been seven against three, yet only two had lived to ride away; Eddard Stark himself and the little crannogman, Howland Reed. He did not think it omened well that he should dream that dream again after so many years.
[…]
“Keep the king’s peace, you say. Is this how you keep my peace, Ned? Seven men are dead…”
Eight,” the queen corrected. “Tregar died this morning, of the blow Lord Stark gave him.”
Abductions on the kingsroad and drunken slaughter in my streets,” the king said. “I will not have it, Ned.”
[…]
Three of my men were butchered before my eyes, because Jaime Lannister wished to chasten me. Am I to forget that?”
[…]
“Some whorehouse? Damn your eyes, Robert, I went there to have a look at your daughter! Her mother has named her Barra. She looks like that girl you fathered, when we were boys together in the Vale.”[…]
[…] Robert flushed. “Barra,” he grumbled. “Is that supposed to please me? Damn the girl. I thought she had more sense.”
“She cannot be more than fifteen, and a whore, and you thought she had sense?” Ned said, incredulous. His leg was beginning to pain him sorely. It was hard to keep his temper. “The fool child is in love with you, Robert.”
[…]
The king swirled the wine in his cup, brooding. He took a swallow. “No,” he said. “I want no more of this. Jaime slew three of your men, and you five of his. Now it ends.”
[…]
Purple with rage, the king lashed out, a vicious backhand blow to the side of the head. She stumbled against the table and fell hard, yet Cersei did not cry out. (aGoT, Eddard X)

Not only is the structure of the dream paralleled with the events in Ned’s room, the same numbers of are repeated too: seven and three. The present (now) parallels the past (then), and actually may give us clues about the past. Ned, Robert and Cersei discuss the confrontation between Jaime and Ned in the streets of King’s Landing, both its causes and results. At times you are left wondering whether Ned is talking of the girl Ned visited at the whorehouse or his dead sister. While it involves other characters, the events of then and now are strikingly similar.

Parallel event Tower of Joy GoT present
Abduction in the Riverlands Ned’s sister, Lyanna Jaime’s brother, Tyrion
Now it begins Arthur Dayne to Ned Ned to Alyn: This is the beginning
Now it ends Ned to Arthur Dayne Robert to Ned
8 dead =  3 + 5 3 KG + 5 of Ned’s men 3 of Ned’s men + 5 of Jaime’s men ( reversed)
2 men walk away alive Ned and Howland Reed Ned and Jaime Lannister
A red stallion5 Lord Dustin’s Jaime’s blood bay
Death of a Cassel Martyn Cassel his son Jory Cassel
Burrial of a Cassel South North (reversal)
Buried beside ancestar at Winterfell Lyanna beside her father Jory beside his grandfather
Visiting the sick Ned and Howland Reed with Lyanna Robert and Cersei with Ned
Weakened Lyanna from fever Ned from the dream (and fever)
A child-woman of fifteen to sixteen Lyanna Barra’s mother
Promises, including empty/broken to Lyanna to Barra’s mother
Dangerous secrets result from Lyanna’s abduction result in Tyrion’s abduction (a reversal)

It is thus little surprise that Ned dreams the old dream about his confrontation with the Kingsguard again, shortly after a similar confrontation with Jaime, also involving an abduction. The parallel is more than a gimmick. We can use it to figure out some of the mysteries, such as

  • Did Lyanna have a child?
  • Was Lyanna in love with the father of her child?
  • How long after giving birth did she die?
  • What did Ned and the Kingsguard fight about?
  • What did Ned promise Lyanna? What promise did he break?
  • What secret is too dangerous to even tell your loved ones?

There is a near-parallel in age between Barra’s mother and Lyanna and Ned making promises to both women. He recalls Rhaegar while visiting the whorehouse and concludes Rhaegar would not have visited one. This visit occurs right before the confrontation with Jaime. The logical conclusion is that Lyanna did have a child.

The reversal in number of people dying on each side, suggest that Jaime takes Ned’s part of the past. Jaime’s attempt to keep the parentage of his sister’s children a secret eventually led to Tyrion’s abduction. Hence, Ned’s secret resulting from Lyanna’s abduction properly ought to be the parentage of his sister’s child. Ned is the sole person who knows both secrets (per Cersei’s confession). After Ned’s death, Howland Reed is the sole person alive as prime witness to confirm the identity of Lyanna’s child, while Jaime is the sole person alive to confirm the identity of Cersei’s children (aside of course from Cersei and she will never confess it). They are at present the sole survivors of the two violent encounters.

Ned wakes from his dream weak as a kitten six days and seven nights after his confrontation with Jaime, like Lyanna was weak from fever related to childbirth complications (most likely puerperal fever). The repetitiveness of other numbers suggests that she died six days and seven nights after giving birth.

Since Barra’s mother was in love with the father of her child (King Robert) – a young girl with little sense and a fool in love – then yes the parallel suggests that Lyanna was in love with the father of her child and must have talked foolish in his eyes.

Barra’s mother prattles on about her baby, and how she’s waiting for Robert to return to her, wanting Ned to promise to tell Robert all of this. And in his own way, Ned does keep his promise, by telling Robert his daughter’s name, how she looks like Mya Stone and that the mother is in love with him. Of course, he relays it in a manner Barra’s mother in no way intended it. Ned also makes promises to Robert on his deathbed, and we can actually see how Ned interpretes Robert’s words in such a way that he can make the promise in a manner it agrees with his own conscious.

“I will,” Ned had promised her. That was his curse. Robert would swear undying love and forget them before evenfall, but Ned Stark kept his vows. He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them. (aGoT, Eddard, IX)

So, what type of promises did he make to Lyanna and what was the price for them? We know at least one already – to come home and be buried with her brother and father.

“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.” (aGoT, Eddard I)

Taking her bones from the Tower of Joy to a location where he could have them sent North, like Starfall, might have been a pain, especially since he would have been regarded the killer of Arthur Dayne. Returning Dawn to Starfall to secure the Daynes’ secrecy and the return of Lyanna to the North might have been a price. But it seems like a thing Ned would have done anyway, or even something he promised Arthur Dayne as he lay dying. All in all, it seems but a little price to pay.

The likeliest promise that most people have surmised is to care or guard her child as his own, exactly as he promises Robert on his deathbed. He did so by claiming her child to be his bastard and he paid the price for it in his marriage – Jon1. However, the fact that so often Ned keeps his vows in a manner the other person did not exactly intend it, should make us cautious about the assumption that Lyanna wanted Ned Stark to adopt her son as his bastard. It is very likely, she knew very little of the outcome of Robert’s Rebellion or even Rhaegar’s fate, as the Kingsguard would have not been motivated to distress a woman so close to childbirth, let alone dying. And just like with Barra’s mother and Robert’s deathbed we see Ned’s reluctance to destroy hope. I propose her dying wishes were in the general line of, “Take me home, Ned, to Father and Brandon,” and, “Keep my boy safe, teach him about his heritage.” What safe keeping and heritage means was up to Ned’s own discretion.

This leads us to the Kingsguard and the deadly confrontation Ned had with them. Who are they? Do they have any symbolism that tells us more?

Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, had a sad smile on his lips. The hilt of the greatsword Dawn poked up over his right shoulder. Ser Oswell Whent was on one knee, sharpening his blade with a whetstone. Across his white-enameled helm, the black bat of his House spread its wings. Between them stood fierce old Ser Gerold Hightower, the White Bull, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.

Persephone belonged to both the Underworld as that of the living, never a permanent resident at either one of them. The most prominent carriers of Persephone symbols at the Tower of Joy are the Kingsguard. Oswald Whent’s black bat is a chthonic symbol of Persephone and stands for death and rebirth. In Lyanna’s case – she dies, but a part of her is reborn in her son.

Persephone’s son Dionysus was twice born. First he was born, then he died, and then reborn. This, and other myths about him, make him another chthonic figure. There are several alternative versions, but of relevance is that the jealous Hera2 wanted him dead and asked the Titans to kill him. To escape them Dionysus took several animal forms, including a bull. But the Titans caught him, ripped the bull to pieces and ate him, but for the heart. The heart was saved by either Demeter or Persephone and used to birth Dionysus a second time via the mortal woman Semele. Hence the fertile bull symbol also became a sacrificial symbol. The second-time born Dionysus is called Zagreus. Dionysus’ followers, the maenads, would celebrate this rebirth into Zagreus (‘Zagre’ meaning ‘pit trap to catch live animals’) in a mad frenzy by shredding and pulling a bull to pieces in the woods. Gerold Hightower’s moniker “White Bull3 refers to the Dionysus bull.

House Hightower’s sigil is that of a torch or beacon upon a tower and their words are, “We Light the Way”. The torch is a symbol for Demeter’s search for her daughter, but also for the third epiteth of Dionysus – Iacchus, the torch bearing, divine child, a star to bring light to the night. The Hightower sigil basically says, “The torch bearer, the divine child,” is up there on the Tower of Joy, and the House’s words reaffirm this interpretation.

Arthur Dayne is twice referred to as the Sword of the Morning who wields the pale greatsword Dawn, which is alive with light in the darkness. Like, dusk, dawn is the moment that does not belong to either night and day. It heralds the end of the night and the start of the day, and yet belongs to neither – an in between moment. Again this would fit the scheme of Dionysus as Iacchus, who brings light in the night, but belongs to the ‘in between’ world, who can go to and fro. A light in the darkness mostly calls forth the image of moon- and starlight, with the moon and stars being the lanterns that “light the way”. And Dawn’s light is pale, miky white, like a moon or star.

Dionysus-Zagreus was hidden and protected by alternative protectors. George seems to have conflated these into the Kingsguard. In one version it are three aunts (sisters to Dionysus second mortal mother who rebirthed him) or three nymphs. At the Tower of Joy it are three Kingsguard instead. In another Greek version it are the Korybantes. They were an order of nine armored men who worshiped the “Great Mother” Cybele with a ritual armed dance of shields and swords. With all that ruckus the Korybantes prevented Hera from hearing Dionysus’ cries. Twice Ned’s dream mentions seven against three, which adds to ten people. But only nine of those ten actually have a guarding role – the Kingsguard and Ned’s personal bodyguard. So, we have in fact nine Korybantes who dance the dance of swords, clashing and making ruckus, drowning out the cries of George’s secret infant in the tower. From this we can infer that both Kingsguard and Ned’s men all wish to protect Lyanna’s child.

From Lyanna’s and baby Jon’s point of view the Kingsguard fighting Ned and his men is as much an irrelevent in-fight, just as it is for Robert when his brother-in-law Jaime would fight his Hand. Both Hand and Kingsguard are sworn and meant to operate in the King’s interest, not their own, let alone fight each other. So, we have another parallel between the present and past. On the surface, the fight between Ned and Jaime seems to be about the kidnapping, but the deeper conflict arises from Ned wanting to uncover the truth, while Jaime attempts to keep the parentage of Cersei’s children a secret. The death-toll numbers of that fight are the reverse of those at the Tower of Joy. It suggests that the Kingsguard fought for the truth of Jon’s identity, while Ned and his men fought to make it a secret.

“I looked for you on the Trident,” Ned said to them.
We were not there,” Ser Gerold answered.
[…]”When King’s Landing fell, Ser Jaime slew your king with a golden sword, and I wondered where you were.”
Far away,” Ser Gerold said, “or Aerys would yet sit the Iron Throne, and our false brother would burn in seven hells.”
“I came down on Storm’s End to lift the siege,” Ned told them,”… I was certain you would be among them.”
Our knees do not bend easily,” said Ser Arthur Dayne.
“Ser Willem Darry is fled to Dragonstone, with your queen and Prince Viserys. I thought you might have sailed with him.”
“Ser Willem is a good man and true,” said Ser Oswell.
“But not of the Kingsguard,” Ser Gerold pointed out. “The Kingsguard does not flee.”
“Then or now,” said Ser Arhur. He donned his helm.
“We swore a vow,” explained old Ser Gerold.

I have no intention to cuagmire this essay in the debate regarding Jon’s legitimacy and whether Rhaegar and Lyanna were married or not. At the time of writing this essay, there are 158 threads at westeros.org that debate the implications of the above conversation, whether polygamy is legal or not for Targaryen princes, etc. Still, the conversation is part of the dream and thus also subject for (chthonic) symbolic analysis and patterning. And it should be noted that all people and places referred to are either an heir or kings.

  • Trident: crown-prince and heir Rhaegar, who is dead.
  • King’s Landing: King Aerys II, to whom Ser Gerold expresses loyalty, but he’s dead.
  • Storm’s End: King Robert I, whom Arthur Dayne rejects and calls Usurper.
  • Dragonstone: alleged Targaryen heir Viserys and exiled King, but the refusal of the three Kingsguard to join him heavily suggest they do not regard him as their king.

This does reinforce the idea that the Kingsguard and Ned had a discussion about who the Kingsguard regarded as their king. Something similar occurred when Lannister bannermen came upon the scene in the throne room where Jaime killed Aerys and asked him who he elected as king. While Jaime left it to others to work it out, the Kingsguard at the Tower of Joy did not.

The locations Ned mentions can be grouped in another symbolic way: mythologically. In Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts I already mentioned how Zeus, Hades and Poseidon divided the ‘realm’: the storm god Zeus was king of the gods at Olympus, the seagod Poseidon with his trident ruled the seas, and Hades governed the Underworld. The Trident and Dragonstone can be seen as a reference to Poseidon’s domain, while Storm’s End and King’s Landing are Zeus’s. Hence, Ned is symbolically saying that he looked for the Kingsguard in Zeus’s realm as well as Poseidon’s, but could not find them there. This only leaves the Underworld where the Kingsguard can be found. And their replies reflect this location. They were “unseen”, “far away” and their knees are like the stone statues in the crypts that “do not bend”. From this we can infer that Ser Gerold Hightower, the Sword in the Morning and Oswell of House Whent declare themselves to be chthonic characters.

Curiously, most life and underworld references throughout the dream switch between Ned and his men and the Kingsguard. For instance, Ned’s men appear as wraiths on horses made of mist and wielding shadow swords, like ghosts of the Underworld. Meanwhile the three Kingsguard appear clear and very much alive, with a good wind blowing their white cloaks in the air. And yet, these Kingsguard claim they can only be found in the Underworld and have several symbols tying them to the chthonic Dionysus. So, who represents life and who represents the Underworld? The likeliest answer is that it is set between life and death, neither in the Underworld, nor in the world of the living, an in-between realm, and that would fit exactly with a porter-scene interpretation as in Kingmonkey’s essay “Eddard in Wonderland”. The final image of the dream sky is that one of ‘dusk’ or ‘dawn’, which fits the time of an in-between world.

A storm of rose petals blew across blood-streaked sky, as blue as the eyes of death.

Why an in-between world and not an Underworld? A journey into the Underworld heralds a change in the character’s life that cannot be overturned and is beyond the character’s control. But a voyage into an Otherworld that lies in between worlds implies options, choices and thus a great deal of freedom over the hero’s own fate. In other words, when Ned appeared at the Tower of Joy he had the power to shape his own destiny. And the present is a result of that choice then.

Kingmonkey makes a remarkable observation about this scene. If Ned was trying to gain access to the Underworld to retrieve Lyanna-Persephone then the guards would be asking the questions, and Ned would need to answer them with boasts. But strangely enough, we see the reverse in the dream: Ned asks the questions, the Kingsguard boast. So, either the Kingsguard aim to gain access, or this is not about a retrieval of Lyanna at all (which is supported by the other symbolism). In the later case, this would imply Ned had visited with Lyanna prior to the violent confrontation and that she was already dead. Then the mysterious “they” who found Ned holding Lyanna’s dead body were his men as well as the Kingsguard. The description of the sky as they clash alluding to death could support such an interpretation. Lyanna calling out to Eddard in the dream would not be a chronologically correct event4. Perhaps for Ned she calls out to him from beyond the grave.

If this is true then we get an entirely different situation. The Kingsguard are not keeping Ned from seeing his sister and his nephew, but allow him to be with her in her last moments. After her death, only her son remains and how to proceed further becomes the imminent problem. The disagreement between Ned and the Kingsguard would then be exclusively about Jon’s future, where the Kingsguard are Jon’s sworn swords and Lord Eddard Stark Jon’s guardian. We know with a certainty what Ned wanted to do – take him home, claim Jon as his own bastard and not challenge Robert’s as the rightful king through conquest. The Kingsguard, who regarded Robert to be a Usurper, would have wished to preserve Jon’s possible claim to the Iron Throne (then or later, in exile in Essos, or in secret at Starfall or Oldtown).

Why would George add a misdirection in the dream by having an already dead Lyanna call out to Ned during the clash? Well, George wishes to keep Jon’s parentage a confusing secret. If Lyanna is confirmed to be dead already when the fight occurs, then the cat’s already out of the bag. The dream’s chronology and only hinted subject of disagreement preserves the theoretical possibility that the Kingsguard intended to prevent Ned from being reunited with his sister.

The King is dead! Long live the King!

The meeting with Robert after the dream of Tower of Joy is the start of the final act for the both of them. The King makes Ned the Hand again and leaves for his fatal hunt the following day. Where before Ned hoped his chthonic dreams about the North were a reminder of happy times, already here their premonition and reminder of “No way back” come into play. Soon, Ned will realize he cannot even change or alter the bethrotal arrangement for Sansa either.

He was walking through the crypts beneath Winterfell, as he had walked a thousand times before. The Kings of Winter watched him pass with eyes of ice, and the direwolves at their feet turned great stone heads and snarled. Last of all, he came to the tomb where his father slept, with Brandon and Lyanna beside him. “Promise me, Ned,” Lyanna’s statue whispered. She wore a garland of pale blue roses, and her eyes wept blood. (aGoT, Eddard XIII)

Ned descends in the Underworld, with the direwolves snarling like hellhound guards. Lyanna wears her garland of roses, but the Queen of the Underworld has a role to perform – to ensure a soul’s curse are visited upon. Alas for Ned, the night of reckoning has come. It all started with a promise he made, and there were two ways for him to fulfill it. The one he chose leads to his doom. Lyanna’s eyes weep blood. Blood shot eyes reference the Furies, chthonic deities of vengeance and they punish those who swear a false oath. Lyanna may have been his sister, but she too is bound to her Underworld duty, and cannot save her brother from the doom he brought on to himself. And as he wakes from this cursed related dream in the pitch black (no moonlight this time), Ned learns of Robert’s fateful accident. This dream at the start of this chapter heralds the undoing of Robert and Ned.

Ned is not the sole character slowly going mad with nightmares. Robert too dreams every night of killing Rhaegar and yet by the time Ned has his Dionysus-porter dream of the Kingsguard, Robert admits that Rhaegar as Hades has won – Lyanna is with him now in death.

Confused, the king shook his head. “Rhaegar … Rhaegar won, damn him. I killed him, Ned, I drove the spike right through that black armor into his black heart, and he died at my feet. They made up songs about it. Yet somehow he still won. He has Lyanna now, and I have her.” The king drained his cup.(aGoT, Eddard X)

It would appear that Robert pretty much lives and acts like a Dionysus – drinking, eating, feasting, philandering.

Robert groaned with good-humored impatience. “If I wanted to honor you, I’d let you retire. I am planning to make you run the kingdom and fight the wars while I eat and drink and wench myself into an early grave.” (aGoT, Eddard I)

The adult Dionysus is often portrayed as a handsome and clean shaven youth. His moods are extreme in nature, varying from relaxed and pleasant, but then switch to bitterness and fury, reflecting the impact of wine on a person. Used within reason the drinker is amiable, but when alcohol is misused it has aggressive negative effects. That pretty much describes Robert’s mood swings from jolly buddy  –  the young Robert Ned remembers and loved – to a swearing bully or bitter man drowning in self-pity. Meanwhile, Robert traded his young handsome, clean shaven looks for that of the Roman bearded Bacchus (equivalent of Dionysus) who’s too fat for his armor. Does that make Robert take on the adult Dionysus role?

It seems far more likely he portrays a character suffering from a Dionysus curse. Such a curse would inflict a mortal man with drunkenness, varying mood swings, slowly driven mad to finally end up shred to pieces by frenzied maenads in the woods, as they mistake the victim to be an animal.

“Oh, indeed. Cersei gave him wineskins, and told him it was Robert’s favorite vintage.” The eunuch shrugged. “A hunter lives a perilous life. If the boar had not done for Robert, it would have been a fall from a horse, the bite of a wood adder, an arrow gone astray … the forest is the abattoir of the gods….” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

Varys mentions several manners in which Robert could have died to Ned later in the dungeons, and how it was inevitable. Many of these ways reference Greek myths. For revenge, Artemis sent a boar to kill Adonis. Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was bitten by a snake in the woods, after she ran from a Satyr. A Trojan war related Greek hero, Acamas, dies of a snakebite while hunting. His brother Demophon is so frightened when he looks in the basket given to him by the wife he forgot about that he spurrs on his horse so violently that it stumbles and he falls on his own sword. And of course Achilles dies by Paris’ stray arrow. Even the hunting and a forest being the abode of gods gives it a typical Greek myth feel, rather than a mid-eval forest. So, it is in the abattoir of the gods, the forest where the satyrs live, that Robert meets his fatal doom, stupendously drunk, his guts torn and shredded by a boar’s tusks, like a proper tragic hero.

Three men in white cloaks, he thought, remembering, and a strange chill went through him. Ser Barristan’s face was as pale as his armor. Ned had only to look at him to know something was dreadfully wrongFires blazed in the twin hearths at either end of the bedchamber, filling the room with a sullen red glare. The heat within was suffocating… A green doublet lay on the floor, slashed open and discarded, the cloth crusted with red-brown stains. The room smelled of smoke and blood and death… They had done what they could to close him up, but it was nowhere near enough. The boar must have been a fearsome thing. It had ripped the king from groin to nipple with its tusks. The wine-soaked bandages that Grand Maester Pycelle had applied were already black with blood, and the smell of the wound was hideous. Ned’s stomach turned. He let the blanket fall.
“Stinks,” Robert said. “The stink of death, don’t think I can’t smell it. Bastard did me good, he? But I … I paid him back in kind, Ned.” The King’s smile was as terrible as his wound, his teeth red. “Drove a knife right through his eye. Ask them if I didn’t. Ask them.”… Robert gave a weak nod. “As you will. Gods, why is it so cold in here?”
[…]
“By rights he should be dead already. I have never seen a man cling to life so fiercely.”
“My brother was always strong,” Lord Renly said. “Not wise, perhaps, but strong.”… “He slew the boar. His entrails were sliding from his belly, yet somehow he slew the boar.” His voice was full of wonder. (aGoT, Eddard XIII)

At Robert’s death bed almost all the symbols of life used in his celebration-speech on the spiral stairs leading into the crypts of Winterfell have been corrupted or claimed by the nightmare that Ned’s life had become in quick succession after he left his home in the North. The laughter has become a terribly smile that resembles a wound. The heat that made women dress undecent is now suffocating. The blood is black. Wine is used to soak useless bandages. White stands for the paleness of death. And instead of the sweet smell of flowering roses, it is the stench of death. Gradually, George has been converting summer and flower symbols into those of death.

The Damned

Ned’s nightmare is complete in the black cells. Both waking life and dreams are nightmares, slowly turning him mad. The dungeons are deep down below the Red Keep. There is no sun or moon, only darkness, and silence. It is as if Ned is left in the Underworld.

Once the door had slammed shut, he had seen no more. The dark was absolute. He had as well been blind. (aGoT, Eddard XV)

A door has been slammed shut, as if Ned is tombed in. Twice there is a reference to blindness and not seeing. Ned is like one of the Kings of Winterfell in the crypts who watched with blind and unseeing eyes. And indeed, the immediate next sentence in the next paragraph makes Ned think he might as well be dead.

Or dead. Buried with his king. “Ah, Robert,” he murmured as his groping hand touched a cold stone, his leg throbbing with every motion. He remembered the jest the king had shared in the crypts of Winterfell, as the Kings of Winter looked on with cold stone eyes. … Yet he had gotten it wrong. The king dies, Ned Stark thought, and the Hand is buried.

That paragraph is very symmetrically and repetitively written to hammer it home to us. Dead and dying, each followed by ‘buried’. Ned touches cold stone and he remembers the cold stone eyes of the crypt statues. He evokes the name of the Kings of Winter (or Kings of the Underworld) as a central theme surrounded by those words. And finally, George does not just evoke the name ‘Ned’ but the name ‘Ned Stark’. The Kings of Winter are Starks and the crypts of Winterfell are their realm. Ned belongs to them. Down in the depths of the dungeons and the black cells, Ned becomes a King of Winter himself.

When he kept very still, his leg did not hurt so much, so he did his best to lie unmoving. For how long he could not say. There was no sun and no moon. He could not see to mark the walls. Ned closed his eyes and opened them: it made no difference….He blinked as the light vanished , lowered his head to his chest, and curled up on the straw. It no longer stank or urine and shit. It no longer smelled at all.

Apart from being blind in the darkness, his leg troubles him. To avoid pain, he must sit or lie and refrain from moving, like a statue. With no markings of time passing, time becomes always, eternal, and nothing makes a difference anymore. He even loses the sense of smell. To be alive is to sense. By contrast, being dead is to be without the senses: blindness, silence, and even without smell.

The dungeon was under the Red Keep, deeper than he dared imagine. He remembered the old stories about Maegor the Cruel, who murdered all the masons who labored in his castle, so they might never reveal its secrets.

More related Underworld words: under, deeper. Murder is how people end up dead in the Underworld. Secrets are things people are murdered for. Secrets are preserved by the dead, by the Underworld. Secrets are what the Underworld and the Crypts of Winterfell harbor. The dungeon is as much an Underworld as the crypts are. And while Ned lives the life of a crypt statue and becomes a King of Winter, deep down in the belly of the Underworld, he damns a certain list of people.

He damned them all: Littlefinger, Janos Slynt and his gold cloaks, the queen, the Kingslayer, Pycelle and Varys and Ser Barristan, even Lord Renly, Robert’s own blood, who had run when he was needed most. Yet in the end he blamed himself. “Fool,” he cried to the darkness, “thrice-damned blind fool.”

  • Dead: Renly Baratheon, Janos Slynt, several Gold Cloaks, Pycelle
  • Prophesied to die: Cersei (Maggy the Frog)
  • Possibly prophesied to die: Littlefinger (GoHH), Jaime (doom-dream)
  • In perilous, life-threatening circumstances: Ser Barristan Selmy (disease and battle at Mereen), Jaime (lured away by Brienne in BwB territory, and missing)

It doesn’t bode well for Varys.

This is one of the most overlooked damnations/curses in the series. And yet when we stop to think of it, it is actually one of the most powerful. Ned does not just “pray” for them to die with the gods. He damns them as if he’s a god, while he is in the Underworld and heavily identified as a King of the Underworld. As a Hades his damnation has weight. None of them will survive the series, all of the remaining will die: Littlefinger, Cersei, Jaime, Varys and Barristan.

Last but not least, Ned thrice-damns himself. The kindly man of the order of the Faceless Men would call it Ned’s sacrifice to seal his curse with blood. If the image of the blindness and immobility did not make the reader consider he’s a dead man sitting, his self-damnation seals it. A voyage into the Underworld leads to a path of no return. Though Ned is led to believe there is a chance of life if he confesses his treason, there are hints regarding his leg that tell us that even if Joffrey had not chopped his head off Ned was a dead man.

Hours turned to days, or so it seemed. He could feel a dull ache in his shattered leg, an itch beneath the plaster. When he touched his thigh, the flesh was hot to his fingers.[…]Ned was feverish by then, his leg a dull agony, his lips parched and cracked.
[…]
[Varys] leaned forward intently. “I trust you realize you are a dead man, Lord Eddard?”
[…]
The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and a sorrow too deep for words. If only he could see the boy again, sit and talk with him… pain shot through his broken leg, beneath the filthy grey plaster of his cast.

Fever, dull agony, filthy grey plaster, sleeping in straw that does not smell of urine and shit anymore but still contains it. Meanwhile, note how the open break was in Ned’s calf (lower leg), and yet the flesh of his thigh (upper leg) is hot. That must be quite an infection, and with an open bone break germs have easy access to the bone marrow. The fever, skin hot to the touch, his parched lips, confusion and having visions are all signs of sepsis, where his whole body tries to battle an infection from spreading. Untreated with fluids and antibiotics it eventually leads to septic shock. George includes several hints in aCoK how Ned would have fared on the King’s Road on his way to the Wall:

  • Coughing Praed dies on the King’s Road a few days after leaving King’s Landing. One of the primary infections that leads to sepsis to this day are the lungs.
  • Gendry is sure that Lommy will die because of his festering leg wound. Wet gangrene is another cause of sepsis.
  • And in aSoS, the Hound was dying from a wound in the leg that Arya thought smelled funny.

In other words, Varys was correct – Ned was a dead man, showing signs of sepsis caused by wet gangrene that had spread via the bone marrow. He would have died of septic shock, like Lyanna (puerperal infection), Drogo (wet gangrene) and Robert. And in relation to Jon, pain shooting from his leg while he thinks of seeing and talking to Jon inside the Underworld is a sure way to say – nope, you’ll be dead, and there will be no seeing and no talking. So, in his own unintended ironic way, Joffrey did give mercy to Ned. Without antibiotics, Ned was beyond anyone’s help. Chances are high that Varys realized this upon his visit, and even may have reported this to Cersei. Both would have been secure of his fate, and it was politically more expedient for them that Ned died on the King’s Road rather than in a black cell.

While in the black cells, Ned has several visions, visitors and a goaler. Ned communicates with all, except the goaler who refuses to talk to him and only answers with kicks and grunts.

The goaler was a scarecrow of a man with a rat’s face and frayed beard, clad in a mail shirt and a lether half cape. “No talking,” he said, as he wrenched the jug from Ned’s hands. […] At first he would beg the man for some word of his daughters and the world beyond his cell. Grunts and kicks were his only replies.

The visions and visitors are Cersei, young Robert, Littlefinger and Varys – a dead man and three of Ned’s damned. It is as if Ned Stark, who has become a King of Winter, can only truly communicate with the dead and the damned, but not the living (the goaler). The damned may not be dead yet, and very much alive, but there is already a place for them reserved down in the Underworld, in the same way Ned and his children have a tomb reserved for them down in the crypts. So, let us briefly look at each of those visions and communications in the dungeons.

There is Cersei’s floating head.

Cersei Lannister’s face seemed to float before him in the darkness. Her hair was full of sunlight, but there was mockery in her smile. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” she whispered.

His next vision is one of a young Robert.

He saw the king as he had been in the flower of his youth, tall and handsome, his great antlered helm on his head, his warhammer in hand, sitting his horse like a horned god. He heard his laughter in the dark, saw his eyes, blue and clear as mountain lakes. “Look at us, Ned,” Robert said. “Gods, how did we come to this? You here, and me killed by a pig. We won a throne together …”

Notice the emphasis on the antlered helm and Ned considering Robert as a horned god. The horned god is revered by the modern day Wiccans and Neopagans. His meaning and significance are based on a combination of early 20th century pseudohistoric origins as well as actual horned deities such as Pan and Cernunnos (often featured in fantasy). Putting aside the question of the actual historicity of there having been a general worhsip of a horned god since the paleolithic, for the Wiccans the Horned God is associated with the wilderness, a personification of the life force in animals and people, of virility and the (wild) hunt. Doreen Valiente also appointed to him the ability to carry souls of the dead to the Underworld, a psychopomp like Hermes. In the essay Persephone of the Winterfell Crypts I showed how Robert’s speech about the South and summer is a speech of life, how Robert himself symbolizes life, while Ned Stark and the North appears to symbolize the opposite – Hades and cold, lonely, unsmiling death. Even after gorged by a wild boar, Robert clings fiercely to life. He certainly was a virile man and beside whoring and drinking he spent the majority of his time hunting. Now it seems Robert talks to Ned as if he already carried Ned’s soul to the Underworld. Again George reminds us here that we should regard Ned as one who is already one of the dead himself.

Finally I want to draw the attention that it is not the late Robert he sees, but the young man he used to be, ahorse, with his warhammer, handsome and tall. And there is one young man, amongst Ned’s list of the damned that looks very much like yong Robert, namely Renly Baratheon. In fact, these are Ned’s thoughts about Renly’s appearance.

Renly had been a boy of eight when Robert won the throne, but he had grown into a man so like his brother that Ned found it disconcerting. Whenever he saw him, it was as if the years had slipped away and Robert stood before him, fresh from his victory on the Trident. (aGoT, Eddard IV)

This early passage ties neatly with how the vision of young Robert is portrayed later in the dungeons. In that vision it is as if the years have slipped away and young Robert visits him. So, Ned seeing young Robert is not solely a visitation from dead Robert, but also that of the damned Renly. Meanwhile in Sansa’s first chapter we see Renly for the first time through her eyes with an antlered helm.

His companion was a man near twenty whose armor was steel plate of a deep forest-green. He was the handsomest man Sansa had ever set eyes upon; tall and powerfully made, with jet-black hair that fell to his shoulders and framed a clean-shaven face, and laughing green6 eyes to match his armor. Cradled under one arm was an antlered helm, its magnificent rack shimmering in gold. (aGoT, Sansa I)

Ned Stark’s next vision in the dungeons follows out of the vision of young Robert/Renly. The image of young Robert alters into that of Littlefinger.

Cracks ran down his face, fissures opening in the flesh, and [Ned] reached up and ripped the mask away. It was not Robert at all; it was Littlefinger, grinning, mocking him. When he opened his mouth to speak, his lies turned to pale grey moths and took wing. (aGoT, Eddard XV)

Another man hides behind the vision of young Robert, emphasising the double nature of the vision. Of the other council members, Renly Baratheon is most often associated with Littlefinger. Despite their mockery of each other, these two men seem to get along very well. Even upon first arriving at King’s Landing, the two men are already talking quietly.

[Ned] disentangled himself from the eunuch’s grip and crossed the room to where Lord Renly stood by the screen, talking quietly with a short man who could only be Littlefinger. (aGoT, Eddard IV)

At the Hand’s tourney the men bet opposing jousters, but jape good naturedly at one another. Perhaps they mock each other to hide they support each other. Renly proposes to seize Cersei’s children and retain the power and put Joffrey on the throne. He offers his house guard and friends, imagining he could muster one hundred men for Ned Stark. Ned refuses the offer, shying away from waking children in the middle of the night and suggesting they ought to pray that Robert should live. But he at least considers Renly’s words insofar that he considers that Cersei might choose to oppose him and that he should prepare himself with a force. Ned summons Littlefinger, who proposes something similar as Renly, except with the addition that in a few years time, they could still opt to expose Cersei’s children as bastards and put none other than Renly on the throne instead. Again Ned refuses the advice and insists on exposing the parentage of Cersei’s children and put Stannis Baratheon on the throne, the brother whom Renly dislikes greatly and the man who wishes to send Littlefinger back to his modest lands in the Vale (if Stannis does not execute him for embezzling, bribing and corrupting staff). Renly and Littlefinger have each other’s back, and behind Renly’s face – which is young Robert’s face – hides that of Littlefinger.

Ned’s last visitor in the chapter is Varys. While Varys is real enough, he appears to Ned in disguise, and just as much an illusion or ghost as Cersei and Littlefinger. In fact, Ned has to make sure for himself that Varys is truly and physically there, and not some apparition or a dream.

Wine,” a voice answered. It was not the rat-faced man; this gaoler was stouter, shorter, though he wore the same leather half cape and spiked steel cap. “Drink, Lord Eddard.” He thrust a wineskin into Ned’s hands.
The voice was strangely familiar, yet it took Ned Stark a moment to place it. “Varys?” he said groggily when it came. He touched the man’s face. “I’m not … not dreaming this. You’re here.” The eunuch’s plump cheeks were covered with a dark stubble of beard. Ned felt the coarse hair with his fingers. Varys had transformed himself into a grizzled turnkey, reeking of sweat and sour wine. “How did you … what sort of magician are you?”
“A thirsty one,” Varys said. “Drink, my lord.”

All these visions relate to Ned’s guilt and the mistakes he damns himself for:

But usually the damned are also undone by their own preferred tool or trait. Eventually, those who keep playing the game will eventually lose and die. Renly’s bid for the throne and refusal to make way for his older brother Stannis gets him killed by one of Mel’s shadowbabies. At some point the web of lies will make Peter Baelish trip. And Varys’ mummery might very well make him blind to the fact that real life might be bigger and stranger than a staged act, in the form of Daenerys, the Stark children, staunch loyalty of the North and even perhaps the Riverlands.

Broken promises

He slept and woke and slept again. He did not know which was more painful, the waking or the sleeping. When he slept, he dreamed: dark disturbing dreams of blood and broken promises. When he woke, there was nothing to do but think, and his waking thoughts were worse than nightmares. (aGoT, Eddard XV).

Since, Ned’s first chapter in the books, George has consistently linked promises to Lyanna’s death. Most dreams include or involve her, and her death was tied to a “bed of blood”. So, we are almost bound to suspect that “dark disturbing dreams  of blood and broken promises” implies Ned broke his promises to Lyanna. Ned’s thoughts on promises to Barra’s mother when he visits Chataya’s to see Robert’s bastard girl, however, should assure us that Ned kept every promise he made to Lyanna, albeit not always in the manner that Lyanna intended it.

Using that line about blood and broken promises as evidence that it are dreams involving Lyanna relies on circular reasoning: namely that since Ned dreams of Lyanna and promises, dreams about promises must always be about Lyanna, which is not necessarily true. Before, George included her name and her “Promise me, Ned,” like an echo. George never fails to emphasise the parallel of the present to Lyanna of the past in the paragraph or neighbouring text. So, if that line about broken promises was indeed linked to Lyanna, George would make that clear to us in the same paragraph, or the next, or the previous.

Closer inspection of what comes before and after this paragraph, however, shows that the disturbing dream of blood and broken promises has nothing to do with Lyanna, but an entirely different death scene. It starts with the vision of Cersei’s floating head, and ends with the vision of young Robert. When awake, he thinks of his daughters Sansa and Arya. He thinks of Cat and how she will raise the North, joined by the Riverlands and the Vale. He thinks of his loved ones that are alive. He hopes that Stannis and Renly raise their armies, that Alyn and Harwin return after arresting Ser Gregor. He makes plans. For the first time perhaps, we see Ned link the present with the future, instead of the past.

The only actual dead person that Ned starts to think of more and more is Robert, and that gives an entirely different context to dreams of blood. The “bed of blood” with Lyanna is a typical expression for the birthing bed. But in the line about “blood and broken promises” the word “bed” is curiously absent. We therefore should be thinking of a bloody death scene that is not related to birthing. Robert dies, because a boar ripped him open from groin to nipple. Wine-soaked bandages are black with blood. Even his smile is a death grin of red blood. It is as bloody a death as one can imagine, and Ned makes several promises to the dying Robert:

  • to serve and eat the boar on Robert’s funeral feast;
  • to stop the assassination of Daenerys;
  • to help his son;
  • to guard Robert’s children as if they are his own.

Of course, when Ned promises to take care of Robert’s children, Ned has Robert’s bastards in mind, instead of Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella.

George strongly parallels the death scenes of Robert and Lyanna, when he has Eddard Stark recollect Lyanna’s echo when the dying Robert asks, “Promise me, Ned.” But Lyanna’s deathbed scene of the past involves new life and kept promises, whereas Robert’s scene is one of death claiming personified “Life” and broken promises. In short, Ned was unable to keep any of the promises made to Robert. He did not eat any boar. It was too late to revoke the order on Dany’s assassination. And in a black cell he could neither guard or help any of Robert’s bastard children.

Worse, he fails his own two daughters as well. The vision of young Robert tells him as much.

The king heard him. “You stiff-necked fool,” he muttered, “too proud to listen. Can you eat pride, Stark? Will honor shield your children?” (aGoT, Eddard XV)

When next we see Ned, it is on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, confessing to treason for Sansa’s life, and inadvertently Arya’s life who followed the crowd and was spotted by Yoren who recognized her as he waited for Ned to take the black.

Yoren:”Here’s something you don’t know. It wasn’t supposed to happen like it did. I was set to leave, wagons bought and loaded, and a man comes with a boy for me, and a purse of coin, and a message, never mind who it’s from. Lord Eddard’s to take the black, he says to me, wait, he’ll be going with you. Why d’you think I was there? Only something went queer.”(aCoK, Arya I)

The “boy” Yoren talks about is Gendry, Robert’s bastard son. Varys later confirms to Tyrion he saved Gendry. It is speculated that Varys did this on his own accord because he wished to preserve Robert’s bastards to expose the truth of Cersei’s children at his own convenience. There is however an issue with this speculation – if Varys supposed Gendry was in enough danger, then why not save Barra and her fair-haired mother?

Varys: “Alas, no. There was another bastard, a boy, older. I took steps to see him removed from harm’s way . . . but I confess, I never dreamed the babe would be at risk. A baseborn girl, less than a year old, with a whore for a mother. What threat could she pose?”  (aCoK, Tyrion II)

The above paragraph is often taken as Varys not expecting Cersei to order the murder of Barra, that he believed Cersei would never harm a baby and her mother. But that would be very naive of Varys, given the fact that he knew Cersei was bold enough to have a king murdered several times, to fuck her twin brother and make them out to be Robert’s. And then Littlefinger mentioned a rumor to Ned Stark about a twins fathered by Robert in Lannisport, and how Cersei had the babies killed and sold the mother to a slaver three years earlier. Now, admittedly Varys cannot always know everything, but surely if there is talk about this in Lannisport, then Varys would know it too.

Consider also that Varys is talking to Tyrion, quite early on in their acquaintance. Tyrion has just sacked Slynt and Allar Deem, condemned the first to the Wall and the second to be tossed overboard for the murder of Barra. Then he tells Varys he ought to do the same thing to him. Does that sound like a situation where Varys could admit that he refrained from saving Barra on purpose, instead of naivity? Varys had not been even sure before this whether he should tell Tyrion about Cersei ordering Slynt to kill Robert’s bastard.

We can only be certain of one motive with Varys – he wants to put Aegon on the Iron Throne. It would still take at least over a year and a half before Aegon is old enough to come when Robert dies. The epilogue of aDwD where Varys kills Kevan and had Pycelle murdered so that Cersei can come into power again, shows that Varys prefers an antagonizing fool such as Joffrey or Cersei ruling Westeros, than a charming but cunning Renly or a strict, righteous, and strategic Stannis. Once the lords war each other, spending their forces, Robert’s bastards become an inconvenience to Varys. Varys cannot really risk black haired bastards with fair haired mothers being produced to prove that Mad Joffrey or Tiny Tommen are not Baratheons. He does not want people to flock around a Baratheon. He wants the people to reject all of the Baratheons – Cersei’s children, Stannis, Shyreen and Renly – and embrace Aegon. That is why he did not do anything to save Barra and her mother.

Then why did he save Gendry? Does he not pose the same danger as Barra, especially since he looks so much like Robert? Well, I doubt that Varys wanted to save him voluntarily. But he is less of a danger than Barra. The issue with the bastards is not whether some look like Robert, but that they have Robert’s black hair while their mother is fair haired. And Gendry’s mother is already dead. Without a living mother it is far easier to deny any claims made about the hair color of his mother.

We know that Ned dreams of broken promises, and that he was completely unable to keep any promise he made to Robert. Ned would feel a moral obligation to save Gendry, because he always tries to keep his promises. And I propose that the letter he wanted Varys to deliver for him was a letter to Tobho Mott to send Gendry North. Then when Varys wants Ned to confess to treason and take the black, Ned made Gendry an extra condition before he would agree to such a plan. Varys allowed it, because he benefited more from Ned confessing his treason and recanting his accusation that Joffrey had no right to the throne, than risking Gendry to be recognized as Robert’s bastard. Without a living mother and just the one bastard he is not that big a risk. And at the Wall, Gendry would foreswear lands, titles and crown.

And that explains why Varys helped Gendry, but not Barra or any other bastard, combined with Ned’s public concession that Joffrey was the rightful king.

If Ned did not break his promises to Lyanna, then why is Ned cursed and haunted by Lyanna? several pages later in the dungeon chapter, Ned does remember how Lyanna was crowned by Rhaegar.

Ned Stark reached out his hand to grasp the flowery crown, but beneath the pale blue petals the thorns lay hidden. He felt them clawing his skin, sharp and cruel, saw the slow trickle of blood run down his fingers, and woke trembling, in the dark.
Promise me, Ned, his sister had whispered from her bed of blood. She had loved the scent of winter roses.
“Gods save me,” Ned wept, “I am going mad.”(aGoT, Eddard XV)

When Lyanna weeps tears of blood it relates to the Furies who avenge false oaths or wrongdoing against kin. Ned’s dreams and visions are repeatedly like Melinoe’s nightmares that drive her victims to madness. The vision of the crown with thorns evokes both again, reaching for Ned from the Underworld – beneath, hidden, unseen – where the blue winter rose and the crown as a symbol of death.

Ned Stark may keep his promises, but what he promised does not always agree with the intent of the person asking for the promises. Strictly speaking, Ned kept all his promises to Barra’s mother: he mentioned the baby’s name and how much the mother loved Robert. But he certainly did not communicate it the way Barra’s mother intended it. Ned promises to keep Robert’s bastards safe, knowing full well that Robert meant for Ned to look after Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella. So, there is a form of duplicity in how Ned keeps his promises. Eddard Stark makes and keeps promises that comply with his own wishes, not the wishes of the people he makes the promises to. It would have been no different with the promises to Lyanna. This brings us back to the dream of the Tower of Joy, where the symbolism and parallels suggests there is a disagreement between the Kingsguard and Ned Stark over Jon’s fate.

The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and a sorrow too deep for words. If only he could see the boy again, sit and talk with him … (aGoT, Eddard XV)

No doubt Lyanna asked him to keep her son safe from the king, to bring him up in a manner that he would know his Northern heritage. But it is doubtful that she meant ‘without knowing who his parents are‘, ‘without knowing his Targaryen heritage‘. She may have believed that Jon would be brought up as a Targaryen prince. She may have thought that Mad Aerys was the king still. And within that context, Lyanna would never have wished for her son to be deprived of his Targaryen heritage, let alone his right to the throne if he was an eligible heir. Lyanna’s context is bound to have been a different one than Ned’s. At heart, Ned chose Robert over his sister and over his nephew. As Robert’s (unrequieted) love for Lyanna doomed him to the ending of a tragic hero, so is Ned’s brotherly love for Robert the root cause of Ned’s end.

Now it Ends

Everyone was moving in the same direction, all in a hurry to see what the ringing was all about. The bells seemed louder now, clanging, calling. Arya joined the stream of people. Her thumb hurt so bad where the nail had broken that it was all she could do not to cry. She bit her lip as she limped along, listening to the excited voices around her.
“—the King’s Hand, Lord Stark. They’re carrying him up to Baelor’s Sept.”
“I heard he was dead.”
“Soon enough, soon enough. Here, I got me a silver stag says they lop his head off.” (aGoT, Arya V)

And so, for Sansa’s life and the chance to take the black, Ned agrees to confess to treason at the steps of Baelor’s Sept, which lies on the top of Visenya’s Hill. Even though he’s dressed in finery he looks haggard, his cast for his leg is rotten, and he needs support in order to stand, further confirming the suspected sepsis.

That was when she saw her father.
Lord Eddard stood on the High Septon’s pulpit outside the doors of the sept, supported between two of the gold cloaks. He was dressed in a rich grey velvet doublet with a white wolf sewn on the front in beads, and a grey wool cloak trimmed with fur, but he was thinner than Arya had ever seen him, his long face drawn with pain. He was not standing so much as being held up; the cast over his broken leg was grey and rotten.

Ned Stark confesses his treason, as agreed, in the sight of gods and men at a sacred location where it is sacrilege to behead someone. But Joffrey sabotages the plans of Cersei and Varys, goes against the High Septon’s effort to stop it and orders Ilyn Payne to bring him Ned’s head. The inevitable happens and Joffrey later shows Sansa her father’s head on one of the spikes.

A thick stone parapet protected the outer edge of the rampart, reaching as high as Sansa’s chin, with crenellations cut into it every five feet for archers. The heads were mounted between the crenels, along the top of the wall, impaled on iron spikes so they faced out over the city. Sansa had noted them the moment she’d stepped out onto the wallwalk, but the river and the bustling streets and the setting sun were ever so much prettier. He can make me look at the heads, she told herself, but he can’t make me see them.
This one is your father,” he said. “This one here. Dog, turn it around so she can see him.”
Sandor Clegane took the head by the hair and turned it. The severed head had been dipped in tar to preserve it longer. Sansa looked at it calmly, not seeing it at all. It did not really look like Lord Eddard, she thought; it did not even look real. (aGoT, Sansa VI)

I mentioned how Robert’s death relates to certain mythical deaths as punishment by Dionysus. There is the death of Orpheus and that of Pentheus. Apart from Orpheus’ failed attempt to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice from Hades, he is also known for being a follower of Persephone and as founder of the Dionysus Mysteries, for which he supposedly wrote hymns and poems. But much later in life, he turns heretic and rejects all gods, except the sun-god Apollo. Worse, he climbs the mountain of Dionysus’ oracle one morning to salute Apollo and thus the sun at dawn. Dionysus’ followers, the maenads, catch Orpheus during this evident sacrilege and shred him to pieces in a frenzy, until all that is left is his head and his lyre, so he can still sing his bewitching songs.

King Pentheus of Thebes meets an almost similar fate, when he attempts to ban the frenzied worship of Dionysus in the forests, because he denies Dionysus’ divinity. As a retaliation for this ban, Dionysus lures Pentheus’ mother Agave and aunts Ino and Semele8 as well as the women of Thebes into becoming maenads on the mountain nearby. Angered, Pentheus then has a suspected Dionysus follower thrown in jail, not knowing that this is really Dionysus himself. The chains though will not stay on Dionysus, and in the same disguise he tricks Pentheus in spying on the maenads on the mountain. Pentheus expects to witness sexual orgies, but is spotted by the maenads. They mistake him for a boar9 and tear and shred him. His own mother carries his head on a spike back to Thebes. And only upon arriving does Agave realize what she has done. The name Pentheus means “Man of Sorrows”, from the root pénthos, which means grief caused by the loss of a loved one. His name thus marked him a man for tragedy.

So, twice we have characters who deny Dionysus’ divinity and either ban the worship or perform sacrilege against him. In both cases, the men ended up torn to pieces, and only the head remains. One head retains some form of communication, the other head ends up on a spike. And it is as if George has applied this Orphic/Penthean death and split it across both tragic “men of sorrows” – Robert who gets torn up by a boat from groin to nipple in the forests, while Ned Stark loses his head on top of a hill after confessing to denying the rightful king. His head ends up on a spike. More, Joffrey performs a sacrilege himself by demanding for Ned’s head, much like the murder of Pentheus is a crime for which Agave ends up in exile. And though Eddard Stark is dead, he somehow still manages to communicate with Bran and Rickon right after his death, but also much much later with Arya.

The split Orphic death between Robert and Ned is another hint that both performed a type of sacrilege against a lightbringer character that fits the Dionysus concept. Perhaps Robert is right when he suspects the boar was sent by the gods to kill him for his assassination order of Daenerys, and for his irrational hatred against children of the Targaryen bloodline, in so much he welcomes child murder. The dream of the Tower of Joy, his feelings of shame regarding Jon, the haunting dreams of Lyanna and his beheading all hint that Ned Stark wronged Jon by denying his parentage and importance.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

Both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are haunted by the past, by Lyanna. Both gave her a power over their lives from beyond the grave. As Queen of the Underworld it is Lyanna’s responsibility to see that the curses are visited upon souls. Ned is haunted by dreams of Lyanna and the Tower of Joy much in a manner how Melinoe, Persephone’s daughter, operates – strange shifting and violent nightmares that turn the afflicted mad. Robert too suffers from murderous dreams where he never gets what he wants the most. He lives life like a Dionysus, but ends up torn apart while drunk in the abattoir of the gods – the forest – like a Greek character cursed by Dionysus. Meanwhile Ned’s waking life grows more nigthmarish than his dreams.

The chthonic symbolism and the parallelling of the Tower of Joy with the confrontation between Jaime and Ned in King’s Landing, as well as the angry debate between Robert, Cersei and Ned right after the dream, do not only reveal that Lyanna bore a son, but suggest that the fight occurred after Ned saw Lyanna, after she died, and after “they” found him. The irreconcilable disagreement between Ned and the Kingsguard seems to be about Jon, rather than Lyanna, with one faction defending the truth, while Ned wishes to keep it a secret. The Kingsguard in particular carry symbols, styles, swords, sigils and house words that relate to Persephone’s son Dionysus, who carries the torch and brings light in the night. This makes them symbolically Jon’s sworn swords, sworn protectors of a lightbringer or light carrier figure.

When Ned and Robert go down into the crypts of Winterfell, Robert starts out representing life and all that is good about life, while Ned is like Hades who lived in the cold, northern Underworld for far too long. But by the end George has almost every symbol of life overturned into a gruesome symbol of death.

The dungeons are as much an Underworld as the crypts were. Here, Ned finally gets back in touch with the Stark power source, when he damns Cersei, Jaime, Janos Slynt, the Gold Cloaks, Pycelle, Barristan Selmy, Renly, Littlefinger and Varys, and finally himself. Several are dead already. Others have been prophesied or foreshadowed to die. And some are in perilous situations. The visions Ned has in the dungeons comprise the foremost damned – Cersei, Renly as young Robert, Littlefinger and Varys. Ned himself would not have survived the dungeons for long, even if Joffrey had not ordered for his head – he has all the signs of sepsis, which indicates a severe infection affecting the whole body, and could only be remedied with antibiotics and fluids.

While Ned feels bound to keep his promises, he makes them with different intentions in mind than the person asking for them. And we should expect that several of Ned’s promises to Lyanna were made in a similar vain. He managed to keep all his promises to Lyanna, but most likely not in the way Lyanna had intended it. They are not so much “broken promises” than that they are “false promises”, because he loved Robert better than his sister, than his nephew and in some respects even more than his own daughters.

I propose that the “broken promises” refer to the promises Ned made to the dying Robert. The dungeon prevents him from keeping them. And I suggest that Ned attempted to recitify this, by writing a letter to Tobho Mott to ask him to send Gendry with Yoren to the Wall. Varys allowed it, because as an orphan Gendry is poor evidence in the hands of anyone attempting to prove that Cersei’s children are not Baratheons, and Gendry would be required to foreswear title, crown and lands when making the Night’s Watch vow. So, with the letter and his confession of treason, Ned saves Sansa, Arya and Gendry. This would make him the character behind Arya meeting Gendry.

Summation of symbols

If we’d expand the compiled list of all the associations we get this:

Life Persephone/Both worlds Underworld
  • the earth, flowers, roses, fruit, melons, peaches, fireplums, green grass, pollen
  • rich harvests, food, wine, fat and drunk
  • seasons: summer, spring, hot, heat
  • elements: breeze, wind, sun, clouds and rain
  • South, towns, cities, castles, Highgarden, inns, hill
  • gold, rich, cheap
  • loud, roar, hug, laughter, smile, sparkling, explosion, bursting
  • the senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling
  • fertility, sex, nakedness, make a new son
  • everywhere, everyone, people, endless, good, sweet
  • light
  • Beginning
  • Sword of the Morning
  • Cling
  • Breath
  • Smile
  • Roses, rose petals, flowers, wreath of (blue) flowers, garland, flowery crown
  • Blood
  • Horse
  • Tower
  • Color: red, white
  • Milkglass, moonlight, moon, star
  • Promises
  • Dawn, dusk
  • Animals: Black bat, white bull
  • Torch, beacon, candle, fire
  • Heat
  • Three men in white cloaks
  • Wine
  • One-eyed
  • Horned God
  • down, subterranean, deep within the earth, under, beneath
  • crypt, vault, tomb, sepulchre, sealed, shut, bury and burrial, holes, cairn
  • wilderness: bogs, forests, Wolfswood, fields, emptiness, no people
  • dungeon
  • hell
  • dreams, nightmares, visions
  • winding, narrow passage or way
  • stone, granite, unbending
  • shadows or wraiths (moving, lurching, shifting, stirring, creeping), mist, smoke
  • ring, echo
  • silent sisters, stranger
  • dead, mortal remains (watching, staring, listening)
  • underfoot, overhead
  • procession
  • pillars, thrones, walls, statue
  • sound and communication: wordless, silence, whisper, deep quiet, only with the dead or damned <>screaming, snarling
  • sight: blind, eyes, dark, darkness, dead of night, night, “unseen” or “far away”, no sun and no moon
  • still, lie, rest, unmoving
  • smell: hideous, stink, no longer smelled
  • shiver, shudder, tremble
  • cold, chill, snow, ice, frozen, winter, Others <> burn, fire in the gut
  • always, eternal, unchanged, absolute, no difference
  • House Stark, Lords of Winterfell, this is his/her place, Stark(s) of Winterfell, Winterfell
  • direwolves, boar, wood adder, moths
  • sadness, sad, weep, sorrow
  • the end
  • North (of the Neck)<> far South
  • hiding, containing, hidden, secret
  • appearance: solemn, older, grim, disapproving, sullen, glare
  • color: black, grey, blue, pale
  • dwindle, stop
  • manner of death: freeze, choke, suffocating, sickness, fever, beheading, blow, butcher, arrow, rip, murder, gangrene, sepsis
  • curse, the cursed, damn, the damned
  • game of thrones, lies, disguise, broken or false promises
  • severed/floating head, on a spike
  • Sword: Ice

Summation of mythological roles

Mythological characters or gods Roles aSoIaF characters
Persephone Queen of the Underworld, seasons, abducted, flowers Lyanna Stark
Despoina horses, animals, dance, conflated with Persephone Lyanna Stark
Demeter Harvest and life, searches and grieves Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Hades King of the Underworld, abductor Ned Stark, Rhaegar Targaryen
Dionysus-Iacchus Lightbringer, secret, protected, Persephone’s son Jon Snow
Dionysus-Bacchus wine, drunk, fat, shred to pieces Robert Baratheon
Orpheus Gifted musician, lyre, heretic, shred to pieces, only head remains Rhaegar Targaryen, Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Pentheus “Man of sorrows”, king, heretic, shred to pieces, head on a spike Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark
Hermes messenger, psychopomp Ned Stark, young Robert Baratheon, Varys
Zeus Storm god, lightning bolt, King of the gods on Mount Olympus Robert Baratheon, Lord of the Stormlands and King of Crownlands and Westeros
Poseidon God of the sea, rivers, a trident Stannis Baratheon, lord of Dragonstone
Korybantes armed protectors, guards Kingsguard, Arthur Dayne, Oswald Whent, Gerold Hightower
Hera Queen of the gods, power, jealous, murderous Cersei Lannister
Athena war, pious, intelligence Elia Martell
Aphrodite love, beauty Lyanna Stark
Helen of Troy most beautiful woman, abducted, cause for the War of Troy and downfall of Troy Lyanna Stark
Paris prince of Troy, judge of beauty, abducts Helen Rhaegar Targaryen
Thor Storm god, warhammer Robert Baratheon
Horned god fertility, hunt, psychopomp young Robert Baratheon, Renly Baratheon

Notes

1. George mentioned in an SSM that Brandon died before he had sons. Strictly speaking a case can be made for Jon being Ned’s son, and Aegon Lyanna’s (since Aegon must have very belated low testosterone levels to not have some bulk, is beardless and looking no older than 16 in aDwD in the year 300 AC when he ought to be 18). But that would basically ignore Ilyrio’s sentimental behaviour and Ned paying a price to keep his promise and thinking that some secrets are too dangerous to even tell the wife. The best fitting identities for these boys are Jon being Lyanna’s son by Rhaegar, and Aegon being Ilyrio’s son with his Lyseni wife Serra.
2. In Greek mythology Hera was jealous, because Dionysus was Zeus’ son he begot with Persephone, after he disguised himself in the shape of Persephone’s husband Hades. Other references make him the son of Hades (Pluto), but Zeus wanting to make him his heir.
3. The White Bull is also related to a disguise of Zeus to abduct Europa, while she was picking flowers, or as a disguise of the woman Io – whom Zeus coveted – in order to hide her from Hera’s jealousy. However, Ser Gerold Hightower has not been confirmed to have been present at Lyanna’s abduction by Rhaegar, and only joins the Tower of Joy long after the start of the rebellion, when Aerys commands him to find Rhaegar and send him to King’s Landing. That, as well as his House’s sigil and words fit an interpretation of Lyanna as Persephone and there being a torch bearing child much better.
4. In the following SSM George answers a question regarding Ned’s dream of the Tower of Joy and says the following, “I might mention, though, that Ned’s account, which you refer to, was in the context of a dream… and a fever dream at that. Our dreams are not always literal.” This implies that while the underlying subject of the dream conversation between the Kingsguard and Ned would have been discussed in the real life events as well, but that the actual words and length of the discussion would be different. It is a stylized dream, not a memory relay of events. Nor was there any actual storm of rose petals.
5. For more on red stallions: watch out for “The Trail of the Red Stallion”
6. GRRM has admitted that in this particular passage he mistakenly wrote Renly’s eyes to be green, while they in fact are blue.
7. Chronologically Ned confronted Cersei as dusk fell three days before his daughters would get on the ship. As it took Renly and Selmy two days to carry Robert back to King’s Landing, and Arya and Sansa were to board the ship the next day by noon, this means that actually Robert was already gored by the boar at the time Ned spoke to Cerse. It is likely that she either already had a raven regarding his hunting accident, or learned of it shortly after her confrontation with Ned. Anyway, it was not Ned’s mercy that killed Robert.
8. Semele is Dionysus’ second mother after his heart is saved from the murderous Titans. Zeus uses the heart to have Dionysus reborn again in a human mother, Semele, making her the first surrogate mother.
9. In some versions they mistake King Pentheus for a lion.