The idea that the White Walkers are secretly the good guys or not the final enemy or that they built the Wall or had some sort of secret peace treaty is a theory that’s become weirdly prominent in the ASOIAF fandom; I say weirdly because not only is there basically no evidence for this theory, but the very existence of this theory requires you to dive head first into the hermeneutics of suspicion and claim that a LOT of textual evidence to the contrary is false or somehow evidence of a conspiracy.
So let’s get this one out of the way.
The White Walkers Aren’t Evil
To be fair, there’s a kernel of this based on George R.R Martin’s own words. Namely, his frequent comments to the effect of:
“The battle between Good and Evil is a theme of much of fantasy. But I think the battle between Good and Evil is fought largely within the individual human heart, by the decisions that we make. It’s not like evil dresses up in black clothing and you know, they’re really ugly. These are some of the things that Tolkien did; he made them work fabulously, but in the hands of his imitators, they become total clichés. I mean the orc-like creatures who always do dress in black and… they’re really ugly and they’ve got facial deformities or something. You can tell that if somebody’s ugly, he must be evil. …We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys.”
The argument extending from this is that the White Walkers would fall into this trap, and therefore there must be something else going on. I think this misinterprets GRRM’s comments and the text. After all, GRRM has gone to great lengths to make the “human heart at war with itself” a major thematic element of his work, showing us good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things, and using POVs to show us the really complicated nature of people introduced as throwing children out of windows.
But that doesn’t mean GRRM doesn’t create some genuinely evil characters. Roose and Ramsay, Joffrey, Qyburn, the Bloody Mummers, Rorge and Biter, the Mountain and his men, Amory Lorch, and so on and so on. And a bunch of these characters break “the rules” – Rorge and Biter are ugly as hell, Ramsay’s got wormy lips, the Mountain’s a giant, etc. The point is that there’s variation – most of the antagonists (Tywin, Cersei, etc.) are fully-rounded human beings with clear motivations that have nothing to do with destroying the world, and a lot of the scariest villains (Roose, Qyburn) are completely ordinary-looking people.
So it’s not a hard and fast rule that should necessarily dictate analysis, but more of a general guideline that has important exceptions.
What does this mean for the White Walkers? Well, let’s start with how GRRM describes them in his pitch memo:
“…half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman Others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn and prepare to ride down on the winds of winter to extinguish everything we would consider life. The only thing that stands between the Seven Kingdoms and an endless night is the Wall and a handful of men in black called the Night’s Watch.”
That would seem to be pretty conclusive – the Others are bad guys, and as GRRM goes on to say, they’re meant to be the main bad guy in the third volume of his trilogy, the big climax. But, it could be argued, GRRM’s changed his mind about a lot of things since that pitch memo. Maybe he did the same thing with the White Walkers?
The problem is that this is one case where GRRM doesn’t seem to have changed his mind – in ASOIAF, the White Walkers have raised an army of the undead, winter is coming, and they’re marching closer to the Wall. And indeed, they seem hell bent on “extinguish[ing] everything we would consider life.” In the whole of ASOIAF, we have seen White Walkers only two times: in the Prologue of AGOT where they killed a bunch of wildlings and then killed Ser Waymar Royce and (by proxy) Will; in Sam I of ASOS where he recalls the Battle at the Fist of the First Men and kills a White Walker who kills Small Paul. The common denominator here is that they’re always murdering people.
Now, some people have argued that the evidence of sentience from the Prologue means that the White Walkers aren’t evil, because they have language and therefore reasons for doing what they’re doing. This has never really made sense to me. Sentience is no bar against evil – indeed, many philosophers would argue that without sentience, you can’t really have evil because evil is making a conscious choice to do the opposite of what you know to be good – and here, we have a fully sentient people deciding to murder a bunch of people they know to be no threat to them, given the wide disparity between their fighting ability. Indeed, when you look at Ser Waymar’s duel, it becomes pretty clear that the White Walkers are getting a sadistic kick out of toying with a clearly outmatched teenager by setting up a fight he can’t win; at one point they’re literally laughing at him.
That’s all we’ve seen of the White Walkers. So what second-hand evidence do we have? Well, we see wights try to murder the Lord Commander in AGOT, we learn from Mance and Tormund that the White Walkers have also attacked the Wildlings: “They grow stronger as the days grow shorter and the nights colder. First they kill you, then they send your dead against you. The giants have not been able to stand against them, nor the Thenns, the ice river clans, the Hornfoots.” Once again, interaction with the White Walkers (indeed, not just human interaction, given the giants) is limited to murder.
The one break in this pattern is at Craster’s Keep, where we learn that:
“…It’s for the baby I have to go…If it’s a girl, that’s not so bad, she’ll grow a few years and he’ll marry her. But Nella says it’s to be a boy…he gives the boys to the gods. Come the white cold, he does, and of late it comes more often. That’s why he starting giving them sheep, even though he has a taste for mutton. Only now the sheep’s gone too. Next it will be dogs, till…”
…”The cold gods,” she said. “The ones in the night. The white shadows…”
“What color are their eyes?” he asked her.
“Blue. As bright as blue stars, and as cold.” (ACOK)
This quote does a lot of work for proponents of the White Walkers Aren’t Evil and/or White Walkers Have a Pact theory. Their argument is that the White Walkers are only trying to reproduce and are therefore just following their nature and or self-preservation and/or that the Battle for the Dawn ended in a peace, where humans agreed to give human sacrifices to the White Walkers. I have never seen how this followers. To begin with, the act of White Walkers farming babies and accepting human sacrifice – so similar to the folklore of the Fair Folk stealing children – is still a hostile act, suggesting that at best humanity is cattle to them. Nor is the act of reproducing a bar against monstrous (or to use GRRM’s phrase “inhuman”) status: many classic monsters require human beings to reproduce (Bram Stoker’s Dracula all the way to James Cameron’s Aliens), but they’re still monsters.
Indeed, the setup at Craster’s Keep does not suggest a stable status quo. Craster claims that the true gods protect him, but their behavior is more like a protection racket turning up the pressure on a small business than a partnership of equals. Nor is there a sense of real communication – it’s highly doubtful the White Walkers want sheep, so more than likely the White Walkers are just showing up and Craster is guessing what they want.
Moreover, simply because something is natural doesn’t make it not inherently dangerous to humanity. Wildfires and hurricanes are natural, and yet no one would propose that human beings shouldn’t protect themselves from them because of that. Virulent diseases, from the bubonic plague to smallpox to Ebola, are all living things trying to re-produce using the human body, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous to humanity.
The White Walkers Had a Pact With Humanity
Which brings me to the topic of whether there was a pact between humans and the White Walkers that ended the Long Night, as is frequently asserted. To begin with, there’s no textual evidence at all that suggests that such a pact existed. And while absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, it’s noteworthy that, by contrast, there is copious evidence of a Pact between the First Men and the Children of the Forest.
We know what the name of the treaty was (the Pact of the Isle of Faces), we know what the terms were (Children get the forests, the First Men get the open lands, don’t touch weirwoods), and we have evidence for it being agreed to and enforced (the Isle of Faces and the Green Men, the obsidian arrowheads, etc.). There’s evidence that the Children and humanity continued to interact in a friendly fashion afterward – there’s the legends of the crannogmen interbreeding with the Children, the legend of the Last Hero seeking their help, the legend of Bran the Builder learning magic from them, the alliance between the First Men and the Children against Erreg Kinslayer, the alliance with the Warg King in the North, the negotiations with Gendel and Gorn, etc.
Indeed, there’s a decent amount of evidence showing the Children of the Forest helping humans deal with the White Walkers, even after the Long Night – “The children of the forest used to give the Night’s Watch a hundred obsidian daggers every year, during the Age of Heroes.” (AFFC) – which in itself suggests that no pact existed between the humans and the White Walkers. Likewise, the fact that Leaf and co. and the last human greenseer are being besieged by wights and fight back with magic suggests that no pact has existed between humans and the Others for a long long, time, given how old Leaf is and how comprehensive Bloodraven’s knowledge would be.
The one piece of evidence that is used to suggest a Pact is the legend of the Night’s King. The argument is that the Night’s King represented a peace deal between humanity and the White Walkers. But does the evidence support that?
The Nightfort had figured in some of Old Nan’s scariest stories. It was here that Night’s King had reigned, before his name was wiped from the memory of man…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)
There’s a number of problems with this as a pact.
- The fact that the Night’s King was the 13th Lord Commander and not the 1st suggests against a pact – given that the Night’s Watch was formed at the very end of the Long Night, the war would have been over for at a minimum (dividing the number of Lord Commanders against 8,000 years) 96 years by the time that the Night’s King took office. How is it that the peace deal to end the war took place a hundred years after the war ended?
- The fact that the Night’s King was brought down and his actions were never repeated again suggests against a pact. After all, if the pact required regular human sacrifice to allow for White Walker reproduction, and White Walkers need reinforcements at the rate they seem to at Craster’s, one-and-done in eight thousand years would not work. Likewise, this argues against the argument that humanity has recently broken the pact, if the violation took place almost eight thousand years ago. (While we’re at it, there have been Wildlings living North of the Wall since the Wall was built, and there have been Night Watch rangers going North of the Wall since the Wall was built, so it’s not a case of recent encroachment on ceded territory)
- None of the details speak to an agreed-upon pact as much as a subversion by the White Walkers. The corpse queen’s seduction is personal rather than political, and we know that sex magic involves the taking of life energy (here, the soul itself), which suggests predatory intent. The fact that the Night’s King had to bind his brothers by sorcery and that both the King in the North and the wildlings, historic enemies, allied to destroy him, suggests that there was not buy-in from any of the human political communities. And finally, as I’ve said, human sacrifice is a hostile action.
The White Walkers Built the Wall
One particular thing that’s been brought up in relation to the idea of a pact with the White Walkers is the idea that as part of the Pact, the White Walkers built the Wall. The logic here is that since the White Walkers have cold magic and swords and armor made of ice, and humans couldn’t have possibly made a structure as massive as the Wall (shades of “aliens built the pyramids and also Stonehenge” there), they must have made the Wall using their ice magic.
Once again, this runs against a lot of textual evidence. Legend tells us that Brandon the Builder built the Wall, and legend explains how it was built by telling us that he learned magic from the Children of the Forest – who as we can see from the examples of the Shattering of the Arm of Dorne and the Hammer of Waters can definitely use magic on a continent-shaking level using water, and what is ice but frozen water – and that he got help from the giants. Given that we can see from the layered structure of the Wall and the Night’s Watch’s tradition of adding additional height to the Wall that it didn’t start at 700 feet tall, this no longer seems like an engineering feat beyond human capacity.
Moreover, the text raises two big problems for the idea that the White Walkers raised the Wall as a defensive move. First, if that was the case, why is it that humans have been manning the Wall on its southern side, and not White Walkers on its northern side, for eight thousand years? Secondly, if that was the case, why is it that the Wall has magic that prevents the passage of the undead, given that the undead are exclusively servants of the White Walkers? (While we’re at it, given that defensive magics are also in place at Storm’s End, another construction linked to Brandon the Builder, that’s more evidence pointing to the legends being true)
History is Written by the Winners
This phrase is used frequently by advocates of this theory, because of all the textual evidence they have to deal with – the Night’s Watch’s records of fighting the White Walkers (“Fire will dismay them, though, and they are vulnerable to obsidian,” AFFC), Dany’s vision of fighting an army “armored all in ice” while on dragonback, and above all Old Nan’s stories:
“Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. 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.” Her voice and her needles fell silent, and she glanced up at Bran with pale, filmy eyes and asked, “So, child. This is the sort of story you like?…”
“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. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.”
“Now these were the days before the Andals came, and long before the women fled across the narrow sea from the cities of the Rhoyne, and the hundred kingdoms of those times were the kingdoms of the First Men, who had taken these lands from the children of the forest. Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. 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—”
Old Nan’s stories are pretty damning evidence, painting the White Walkers as omnicidal, seeking to destroy all warm-blooded life, which coincides pretty closely with GRRM’s original description. Moreover, it points away from a pact theory, as the Last Hero is in search of the Children of the Forest and their magics – which fits pretty closely with the legends of Bran the Builder who learned the language of the Children of the Forest to raise the Wall, and who formed the Night’s Watch, and indeed fits Bran’s own experience in finding the Three-Eyed Crow while being hunted by wights. The World of Ice and Fire gives us the end of the story: “Alone he finally reached the children, despite the efforts of the white walkers, and all the tales agree this was a turning point. Thanks to the children, the first men of the Night’s Watch banded together and were able to fight—and win—the Battle for the Dawn: the last battle that broke the endless winter and sent the Others fleeing to the icy north.” You couldn’t get an ending more diametrically opposed to the theory of a pact between the White Walkers and humanity.
So the argument is that all of this is false, either unreliable evidence corrupted by thousands of years, or a deliberate conspiracy (going by the destruction of records of the Night’s Watch) to turn the White Walkers into the evil bogeyman. This argument fails on two fronts.
First, if textual evidence is unreliable, we have nothing to go on either way. The same pieces of evidence cited by those in favor of the pact between humans and the White Walkers are equally unreliable and tainted as those pieces of evidence that are cited against such a pact ever existing.
Secondly, that’s not really what GRRM is about. While GRRM likes playing with unreliable narrators and contested information, the thrust of his argument isn’t necessarily that the winners write history. Rather, he argues that it’s the skeptical contrarian academics in the Citadel, the same ones who share these theorists’ beliefs that “the Others…became monstrous in the tales told thereafter…reflect[ing[ the desire of the Night’s Watch and the Starks to give themselves a more heroic identity as saviors of mankind, and not merely the beneficiaries of a struggle over dominion,” who are wrong. Contrary to what the Citadel believes, magic is back, dragons are back, Children of the Forest are real, giants are real, and the White Walkers are far more than gussied-up legend.
By contrast, it’s the Old Nans and Septon Barths of the world, the storytellers and legend-keepers, who are right about what’s going on in the world around them. And the Old Nans of the world say that the White Walkers are evil.
In the end, the theory falls down on both Doylist and Watsonian grounds. On a Doylist level, for it to be true would have meant that GRRM spent an enormous amount of time and energy writing pages and pages and pages of red herrings (and almost nothing in the way of actual clues), all of which is going to be completely invalidated when the M. Night Shyamalan-esque “twist!” finally is revealed. It also means that, contrary to his pitch memo, GRRM won’t have a crisis for his heroes to face in the climax of his series – indeed, in retrospect, Jon Snow, Jeor Mormont, Pyp, Grenn, Sam, Dolorous Edd, Bran, Hodor, Jojen, Meera, and Bloodraven, have all been wasting their time, and so has GRRM in trying to get the audience to invest in their struggle against an enemy that doesn’t really exist.
On a Watsonian level, it means that Jon Snow has wasted his life, that his death was for nothing. Likewise, everything that Mance Rayder and his followers sought to accomplish, as well as Qhorin Halfhand and every man of the Night’s Watch who died on the Fist of the First Men or trying to keep the Wall intact, was for naught. The doomed bravery of Ser Waymar, Will’s bold decision to try to inform Castle Black, and Gared’s dying words, meant nothing.
That’s not subversion or deconstruction, that’s pure literary nihilism. And if there’s one thing George R.R Martin isn’t, it’s a nihilist, Lebowksi.