In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’s eighth season we were treated to several important revelations about the White Walkers, the mysterious icy race who have emerged as the main antagonists of the HBO series. (Not convinced they’re really all that bad? We’ll touch on that later.)
Firstly, we learned that when a White Walker dies all the wights (reanimated corpses) created by that particular Walker will also perish – presumably for good. By Thrones standards this is pretty encouraging news; that vast army of the dead is a formidable force and the knowledge that all of its rotting soldiers are tied to a much smaller number of leaders makes the inevitable war a little easier to stomach.
Even more importantly, this discovery led to a new theory; specifically, that if the Night King himself (the original White Walker) were to be eliminated, all of his creations – wights and Walkers alike – would disappear.
“Kill him. He turned them all,” explained Beric Dondarrion.
Would things really work quite this neatly? It’s a plausible theory and one that is, arguably, foreshadowed by one of the visions Bran Stark had back in season six in which he moved past a vast army of the dead. None of the wights were able to see him until the Night King himself clocked Bran’s presence – they all turned to stare at him as one, suggesting that the dead are intimately connected to their leader.
That said, Beric is still making a sizeable leap of logic as there is no obvious reason why the rules governing the White Walkers and wights they make would also apply to the Night King and the entire army. It’s just about possible, for instance, that the wights are being collectively warged (possessed, Bran-style) by the Walkers who made them and that this is why they die anew when their creator is killed.
Furthermore, the show is still based – at least in broad strokes – on George RR Martin’s unfinished book series and his overall plan and we’re not convinced the famously brutal author would ever wrap things quite so easily. True, Dondarrion’s observation wouldn’t have made it into the script unless there was a firm reason for it – but the overall ending of the series will surely be a lot more complex than “someone kills the Night King and everything goes back to normal: The End”.
Why are dragonglass and Vlayrian steel so important?
So far, the show has demonstrated that both of these materials (the former of which is being mined from Dragonstone by Jon) have useful Walker-killing properties. Dragonglass, a volcanic glass also known as obsidian, is also supposedly lethal to wights in the TV series – judging by damage done and comments made by Jon Snow in season seven – although this is not the case in Martin’s books.
The problem with Valyrian steel, of course, is that it’s incredibly rare; in the world of the books and show, the ability to forge new Valyrian steel is a lost (possibly even magical) art and no new weapons have been made for a long time.
What about fire?
While fire has always been an effective wight eliminator, the Walkers – who bring a deep wintery chill with them wherever they go – have thus far been impervious to its effects, apparently able to quell flame and walk through it with ease.
That said, we have yet to see whether dragon fire is equally ineffective. Frustratingly, in the episode Beyond The Wall we saw Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion torch hundreds of wights, while the Walkers kept well away.
We also saw that poor Viserion had been resurrected, presumably as an undead wight-dragon (but perhaps as something more complex) unlikely to torch his new masters. At least under the control of the Night King.
Can wights and White Walkers cross the wall?
Until season seven’s finale, it seemed highly unlikely. Then undead Viserion seemed to torch freeze-flame the entire thing to rubble.
The question is whether season eight will honour the Wall’s supposed protective spells. While the TV show focused on physical barrier, magical barriers have been alluded to in many conversations.
With six episodes left until the very end, however, we expect magical dragon flames will simply cancel out any magical protection.
The White Walkers were originally created to be used as a weapon against humans
In season six we learned that The Children of the Forest, an ancient race who inhabited Westeros before humans, created the Night King by plunging a dragonglass dagger into the heart of a man, transforming him into the inhuman being that he is today.
When asked why they would deliberately create such a monster, their leader Leaf (an appropriately Foresty name) told Bran that they needed to protect themselves “from you.”
She then added “from men.”
With the ability to move through time and space and warg into other humans and animals, a number of complex theories have sprung up around Bran’s association to it all.
Some people allege that “you” was intended to refer to Bran personally, rather than humankind in general. Some have even speculated that the Night King and the young Stark may even (somehow) be the same person and that something far more surreptitious is going on between the characters.
The official story – at least for the time being – is that the Night King was created to protect the Children from the ravages of the invading First Men. Later, they forced him to fight against his own kind.
As a weapon he supposedly grew out of control, created his own army and turned on the Children and humans alike. The Dragonstone cave paintings, found by Jon Snow in season seven, certainly seem to reiterate the story; they seemed to show that the Children were forced to join forces with humanity to fight the White Walkers.
What do the White Walkers want?
Both Martin’s books and the HBO TV tell us that, many years before the events of Game of Thrones, the world (Westeros, Essos, and other lands) fell into a period called The Long Night. During this time a prolonged wintery darkness fell and White Walkers laid waste to humanity.
“Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man,” Old Nan – the oldest person at Winterfell – tells Bran in the first book of Martin’s series. “There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.”
The Walkers, referred to as Others in the books, overran the land during this time but were eventually defeated. Many believe that a legendary hero, named in some cultures as Azor Ahai, was responsible for this victory and some followers of the Red God, such as Melisandre, claim that this hero will be reborn again as the “Prince That Was Promised” to take on the new darkness.
The question of what the White Walkers really want, however, remains ambiguous. The great Wall was ostensibly resurrected to form a magical barrier between them and the rest of Westeros. By all recent events, it seems likely they’re looking to return the world to a Long Night.
It’s possible, however, that the Night King feels entitled to a takeover bid, believing that humanity has ruled over Westeros for too long. Some have even suggested that, like conquering Queen Daenerys, he could be motivated by a sense of injustice and a desire to upset the status quo of dominant (human) tyrants.
Looked at in this light, it could be argued that the White Walkers aren’t so much an ultimate evil as just another faction in the ongoing Game of Thrones power struggle.
It’s probably also worth noting that R’hllor, the mysterious Lord of Light followed by Melisandre and other Red Priestesses and Priests, has been painted by his followers as the logical opposite of the White Walkers.
As a fire god with a fondness for human sacrifice, it calls traditional ideals of good vs evil into question. R’hllor doesn’t quite serve as a quintessential force for good and, perhaps, neither do the Walkers as a force of evil.
Who could defeat the White Walkers?
The idea that a prophesised hero, possibly the aforementioned Azor Ahai reborn, will step forwards to defeat the Walkers remains a central part of the TV show’s narrative.
Initially, Melisandre believed that Stannis Baratheon is the man in question but she later revisted this theory (although, conveniently, only after Stannis is dead and his daughter Shireen burned alive).