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Yes, they look like icy, withered undead lords. Yes, they may have taken a baby and turned into into a blue-eyed, pale-skinned… thing. But judging from (opens in new tab) in season 6 where the Children of the Forest created the very first White Walker, they might not be the wholly evil entity we once thought. I’ve dived deep into how (opens in new tab) could buck every theory we have about them, and what their ultimate game plan could be. I should point out: all of this is based on Reddit fan theories, the odd quote from George RR Martin himself, and a good heap of imagination.
The story so far
The White Walkers’ origin story is fascinating. Originally created by the Children of the Forest to help them fight against the First Men, they were basically envisioned as a living (well, sort of) weapon of mass destruction. The wood-dwelling race was being annihilated by the First Men, with their bronze weapons and leather armour. Pressing a shard of dragonglass into a human prisoner’s heart and using some kind of magic, they turned him into the first White Walker. Only things didn’t quite go to plan. We don’t know whether they always had the ability to raise the dead, yet somewhere along the line the White Walkers either a) figured out how to do it and rose up against the Children of the Forest, or b) they always knew how to make corpses walk around again (a major oversight on the behalf of the Children of the Forest) and eventually used this as their trump card to end their time as foot soldiers for the woodland race.
Bluntly put, it’s the Children of the Forest’s fault that the White Walkers exist. However, we’re not entirely certain whether the first man to be turned into a White Walker is the same as the Night King, who clutched Bran’s arm and took Craster’s baby. Importantly, when the first White Walker was created the camera didn’t pull back to show the instantly-recognisable icy crown on his head. Why is this important? Because legend has it that at some point in history there was another Night King. Well, Night’s King, technically. Night’s King was - or is - an ancient Commander of the Night’s Watch. Old Nan tells his tale, saying that an ancient Lord Commander at the fall saw:
“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.”
Even though we saw the Children of the Forest create the first White Walker, there’s no guarantee it’s the Night King we know from season 7. The Night’s Watch was set up centuries later. Perhaps the White Walkers’ race was dying, being unable to procreate and with no babies to transform into wights, so they sent one of their own to tempt a man from the Wall. It worked, and once this Lord Commander slept with her he transformed into the Night’s King. It didn’t end particularly well for him, though. Furious that his Sworn Brothers rose up and killed the one he loved (granted, they were performing human sacrifices but nobody’s perfect) and possibly aware that his cursed existence was the Children of the Forest’s fault, he could have just been one in a long line of Night Kings.
Old Nan even tells a story where he’s brother to The King in the North and his name was - wait for is - Bran, but that’s a fan theory for another time. One of the sacrifices could have in fact been turned into a wight instead of being killed outright, made it North of the wall, and become the next Night King, continuing the line. Season 7’s crowned icy foe might be the latest monarch. Whether you believe that fan theory or not, his kind are set on invading Westeros, home of the Children’s historic allies and arguably the reason the White Walkers exist. One word is probably echoing through The Night King’s mind: revenge.
However, they’re not mindless killers. Firstly, White Walkers are not ‘dead’, just filled with a very different type of life from humans. (opens in new tab) by George RR Martin as being “strange, beautiful. Think the Sidhe made of ice, something like that - a different sort of life… inhuman, elegant, dangerous". For those who aren’t familiar with them, Sidhe are mythological Irish beings somewhere between fairies and elves. Like them, the chilly beings have a coherent language (granted, it might sound like shrieking or cracking ice) and possibly even a culture. A (opens in new tab) user spotted that their pact with Craster not to attack him and his numerous wives if he offers them his male heirs hints that they can make deals and communicate with people, even if it’s only through mute signals (as I doubt they’d have spoken with Craster directly). When a White Walker duels with Waymar Royce in the books, its companions make no move to interfere. Indicating that they have some notion of chivalry, clearly they know how respected knights should act. This kind of behaviour implies that they’re just as morally complicated as the human race.
Men have made them rethink their strategy too. Previously they were just walking around with bare chests, under the impression that they couldn’t be hurt - but in the TV show after Sam Tarly kills one with a dragonglass dagger, suddenly they start wearing armour (the books already have them wearing chameleon-like armour). This armour isn’t foraged from dead bodies either: it’s a completely new type, meaning that somewhere, someone is creating it.
Oh, and also: when they have such strength on their side in the form of hundreds of reanimated corpses, it’s worth pointing out that they haven’t devastated Mance Ryder’s folk with an all-out attack - instead they only hunt those on the very edges. Why keep the Wildlings alive if they’re innately evil, hateful beings that just thirst for killing? It could be that they’re pushing the host south in the hope that the Wildlings will find a way to destroy the Wall. Even if we can’t imagine what they’re planning to do, it still looks like they have a strategy in mind.
In short, White Walkers are a lot more sophisticated than Westeros thinks. Typically they’re seen as a mindless evil, reanimating those who have fallen under their swords in folk tales or as servants of The Great Other, R’hllor’s nemesis. Yet if they have a culture, they must also be advanced enough to have a moral slant. Which leads me nicely onto precisely how - if George RR Martin sticks by what he’s said in the past - they could end up being morally ambivalent, and certainly no worse than Cersei or Daenerys.
There’s no such thing as good and evil
George RR Martin has had plenty of bastards in his books - and I’m not talking about characters whose parents weren’t married. Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey Baratheon, Myranda - there are plenty of characters who seem evil to the bone. Yet Martin has (opens in new tab) saying that he doesn’t think plain old good and evil is a particularly interesting trope. “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… We don’t need any more ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black’ ”. His thoughts are - unsurprisingly - mirrored by his writing:
Bran made a face at her. “But you just said you hated them.”
Why can’t it be both?” Meera reached up to pinch his nose.
“Because they’re different,” he insisted. “Like night and day, or ice and fire.”
“If ice can burn,” said Jojen in his solemn voice, “then love and hate can mate. Mountain or marsh, it makes no matter. The land is one.” (A Storm of Swords)
Bearing all this in mind, it seems increasingly unlikely that the whole race of White Walkers are going to be pure evil. George RR Martin excels at creating psychopaths like Joffrey or sociopaths like Ramsay, yet I don’t think he’d paint an entire culture with the same brush. Considering they could be being led by an old Night’s Watch Lord Commander, have some idea of chivalry and etiquette, it’s possible they could be allied with a particularly anti-Targaryen House. With Daenerys arriving from Essos with her dragons and strongly epitomising the fire part of the Song of Ice and Fire, the White Walkers could support those who oppose her claim to the Iron Throne.
After all, the last thing they want is for the Targaryens to have the throne and for dragons to roam again. Some of the more out-there theories even think that the old phrase “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell” is a nod to a pact made between the North and the White Walkers, where they agree not to invade as long as a Stark sits in the snowy castle. Why specifically with the Starks? Because long ago one of the Night Kings was a Stark himself. Swearing to take the throne if it ever became vacant, the oath has become a mere saying in Westeros but really recalls this ancient agreement.
Either way, Winter is coming, and so are the White Walkers. What they want exactly remains a mystery - but so long as it does, there could be the possibility for one House in Westeros to have an incredibly powerful ally.