White Walkers – An Experimental Model
I’d like to put forward another view on the origin of the White Walkers. I posit they are no natural occurrence but rather, are created by man. My ideas revolve around why they may have been created, as well as the requirements and mechanics of creating these inhuman beings. I’m taking a ‘top down’ and ‘out of the box’ approach here. Perhaps the best way to describe this essay is in terms of an experimental lab.
My arguments center around the following points:
- Role of the White Walkers beyond the Wall in Westeros
- A summary of resurrection techniques
- Star-Sapphires and glamours.
- Bones remember and the power of bloodlines
Note also that while I can supply contextual support for most of these ideas, I’ll refrain from presenting that here. This is an initial draft, summarizing my thoughts and findings. I use the term White Walker here to distinguish them from wights and possible further Others.
What role do the White Walkers occupy beyond the Wall in Westeros?
Parallels to the White Walkers within the narrative suggest that the White Walkers represent members of an institution with a specific purpose. We see parallels with the Kingsguard, the Night’s Watch and various outlaw groups. The main purpose of these institutions is one of protection – even outlaw groups such as The Brotherhood without Banners were originally committed to helping and protecting the smallfolk. All these institutions were created when the need for them arose. This is one of the main reasons why I suspect the WW are not necessarily a phenomenon of nature or a natural race that evolved over time. The idea of WW in an honourable, protective role is reinforced via their contextual association with Ghost and also Symeon-Star-Eyes, a very skilled and (by virtue of comparison with Aemon the Dragonknight) and honourable knight.
That said, some allegorical allusions to the White Walkers also place them in an antagonistic role. An example of this would be associations with honourable members of the KG such as Barristan Selmy versus and dishonourable members of the Kingsguard such as Ser Mandon Moore. And of course we see them in an antagonistic role in the story, and recently, also in the Hardhome episode of Series 5.
There are many more observations that suggest we haven’t quite understood what the White Walkers are really. It is entirely possible that there are two sides to this mysterious race. My personal opinion is it all depends on who creates and controls them. In the wrong hands, they are deadly, but in the right hands, they may be rather useful. I think Craster’s sacrificed sons turned White Walker represent a renegade branch.
I propose that the White Walkers were created, most likely by greenseers with the help of men of a suitable bloodline. I also believe that the Starks, by virtue of their blood and heritage are the key to and provide the genetic resources required to create and control the ‘protective‘ kind of White Walker.
How would one go about creating a new form of ‘life’ or giving ‘life’ to something inanimate?
A summary of resurrection techniques
We see several forms of resurrection in the narrative, all of which involve the transfer of souls or part of a soul from a living being to a dead or dying person.
- The sex act as part of a ritual (an act of procreation) to extract or pass on part of a soul:
- Melissandre lies with Stannis in order to extract part of his soul, which she uses to birth a shadow. She’s demonstrated this twice – the shadows she produces are ethereal, without body but can be guided to undertake a specific cause.
The soul-extraction process is depleting in nature – Stannis’ remaining soul does not regenerate itself and Mel fears he will not survive another ‘extraction’. I think this is important because it tells us that a soul (or part of a soul) on its own will not guarantee the formation of a fully fleshed and functioning entity.
- Patchface gets to keep his life by exchanging his seed for a mermaid’s soul (or part of it). I suspect that PF was on the verge of dying, but not dead, in the moment of transfer. He ends up mentally handicapped because she possibly only gave him part of her life force, enough to keep him alive, but not enough to fully restore his wits. Alternatively, the soul may have not been fully compatible with a human being. You’ll find my thoughts on Patchface’s surival here.
- The Night King’s Other bride:
I believe this woman was undead (a wight) as evidenced by her milk-white skin and blue eyes. The NK brought her back to life via an act of procreation, at the same time transferring his soul (or part of his soul).
- Melissandre lies with Stannis in order to extract part of his soul, which she uses to birth a shadow. She’s demonstrated this twice – the shadows she produces are ethereal, without body but can be guided to undertake a specific cause.
- A powerful skinchanger can usurp the body of a living person by driving out the latter’s soul and substituting it with his own (self-resurrection), thus ensuring a continuation of his own life (this is what Varamyr tries to do, but fails.
- Khal Drogo: Drogo was on death’s door, but still living when MMD began her blood ritual. I personally believe she transferred the sacrificial horse’s soul, which was enough to restore his life force, but being an unsuitable or less powerful soul, he remained a vegetable.
- Lord Beric: Thoros appears to transfer part of his soul / life fire to Beric to revive him. His fire magic and role as a red priest not only empowers him to do this, it also probably enables him to perform the ritual many times (probably with a little help from the weirwoods in the hollow). However, after raising Beric six times over, even Thoros says:
A seventh death might mean the end of both of us.
- Lady Stoneheart: Beric transfers his remaining life force to Catelyn to resurrect her and dies afterwards.
- Coldhands: There is reason to believe that a powerful greenseer is capable of reanimating the dead (probably the CH-scenario). The difference between Coldhands and a regular wight is his ability to speak, think and reason. He has retained certain key human qualities. In my opinion, the only difference between Coldhands and a blue-eyed wight is that his soul has not been enslaved. See this essay on warging and skinchanging for more on that idea.
The above examples illustrate the idea of resurrection or of restoring life-force via the transference of a soul or life force from a living person, animal or hybrid (mermaid) to the dead or dying.
To take this idea further, the next step would be to breathe life into something devoid of life, say a stone or better still, something more likely to guarantee success – skeletal remains / bones. This is where our knowledge of the mechanics of glamours and the example offered by Symeon Star-Eyes comes in.
Symeon Star-Eyes, Star-Sapphires and Glamours
Let’s have a look at Symeon Star-Eyes:
“Symeon Star-Eyes,” Luwin said as he marked numbers in a book. “When he lost his eyes, he put star sapphires in the empty sockets, or so the singers claim.
Star-sapphires remind us of the blue ‘eyes’ of White Walkers and wights. Mel uses rubies for her glamours, successfully disguising Mance as Rattleshirt. She employs a large square-cut ruby in her magic, which acts as a master to the slave ruby worn by the subject. We have not seen sapphires in this context but considering that sapphires and rubies are basically the same type of stone, made of the same mineral, and that the only difference between them are the inclusions which give the gem it’s colour, I would say sapphires are a legitimate alternative for glamours worked via ice magic.
Symeon Star-Eyes is a fountain of symbolism, not least of which is his blindness, which he overcomes by placing two star-sapphires in his empty eye-sockets. That he is able to see with these sapphires implies they are magical in nature. Knowing what we do about glamours, we can ask if the gems he is wearing are acting as slaves to a master sapphire controlled by someone capable of doing so and that this is what magically brings about the ‘illusion of seeing’. Could the blue star eyes of the wights and white walkers be the means by which they are controlled? I think so.
Now the next thing I propose may appear crackpotty but bear with me:
Symeon Star-Eyes sees two hellhounds (direwolves) fighting at the Nightfort. If we assume that hellhounds are akin to direwolves then this leads us to the Winterfell crypts, where there are indeed incidences of ‘hellhounds fighting’. We have Grey Wind fighting Shaggydog (representing the mythical hellhound Cerberus) on one occasion and Summer fighting Shaggy on another. The latter occurs when Bran, Master Luwin and Osha visit the crypts after Bran’s and Rickon’s dream of Ned’s death. Recall Rickon is hiding in Ned’s tomb with Shaggy. When Luwin reaches into the tomb, Shaggy attacks him savagely and Bran calls Summer to deal with Shaggy.
Well, this scene lends itself to much interpretation but the main point here is the crypt and what it contains – bones. Symeon Star-Eyes leads us to the bones of the dead Kings of Winter, Kings and Lords of the North. These bones are heavily guarded – they have iron swords on their laps which are supposed to keep their spirits locked in the tomb. Additionally, the naked swords on their laps appear to deny guest right, implying that not everyone is a welcome visitor to the crypts. Each statue has a direwolf at its feet, alluding to Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound responsible for guarding the gates of Hades. In addition, the crypts are of course underground, the entrance is not easy to find – we see that strangers to Winterfell (such as Lady Dustin and Mance/Abel) do not know the location of the entrance. Winterfell also has a lich yard, where servants are buried. We do not know where the nobel women of Winterfell are buried, if they are buried at all (are their bodies cremated or sent back to their former Houses?). Anyway, the crypts of Winterfell are a burial ground for the kings and lords of Winterfell and they are well concealed and heavily spiritually guarded.
The question is why take all this trouble to guard a few bones? Do the bones of the kings of winter ‘remember’ some important secret? I think their bones harbour a genetic trait that makes them candidates for the creation / resurrection of White Walkers.
I propose that White Walkers can be created by reanimating a skeleton via the transfer of a suitable soul. The star-sapphires placed in the eye-sockets function in the same master/slave relationship as we have seen with Melisandre’s glamours. Additionally, an ‘ice made flesh’ magical principle was incorporated to give the new entities bodies of ice.
Why bones or a skeleton? Because it is known that ‘the bones remember’. Perhaps the creators also required a humanoid type entity, capable of standing on two feet.
Bones ‘remember’ and the power of bloodlines
What exactly do the bones remember?
Perhaps we can find out by examining the information we have on resurrection techniques and the properties of some bloodlines known to us.
If we can imagine that the White Walkers were created for a specific purpose, then we can also assume that they would need to be possessed of some amount of intelligence, independent thought and speech. They do appear to exhibit these abilities.
Where are these properties stored exactly?
Lord Beric’s capacity to move, speak and make decisions remains intact after resurrection. He feels ‘empty’ and has some memory loss and does not require food to sustain his body. Being undead explains why he doesn’t need sustenance, emptiness and memory loss because his own soul has been partially replaced by another. His body itself has suffered numerous grevious injuries but that does not adversly affect his ability to function. I think he is able to draw fire from his blood to ignite his sword by virtue of the replacement-soul he received via Thoros, Thoros being a red priest imbibed with fire magic.
Lady Stoneheart, formerly Catelyn, was dead three days prior to her resurrection. Her flesh must have undergone some decomposition during this period but we see her still capable of reasoning and speech (her speech is only unclear because her throat is cut).
The above examples suggest that the flesh itself is not relevant as a repository for certain key human qualities but in both cases, Beric’s and Catelyn’s bones are unharmed.
Let’s look at Patchface and Drogo for more conclusive evidence:
Patchface has lost his wits to some extent but is still capable of speech and understanding – he understands and obeys commands and may be able to make independent decisions. His body and bones are intact. I suspect he received only a partial soul from the Mermaid in exchange for his seed or perhaps the soul he received was not quite compatible. Either way he is only partially restored – his body is unharmed but his mental capacity has been affected negatively. His bones are intact.
Drogo is another matter. His body and bones were intact but he was a complete vegetable after the blood ritual involving the horse. Now, as stated above, I believe MMD transferred the horse’s soul to Drogo, a very inadequate soul, devoid of human aspects such as human intelligence and the capacity to speak.
Drogo and Patchface’s cases appear to suggest that certain characteristics such as human intelligence, and the capacity for speech is stored in the soul or in the bones, rather than in the flesh.
Let’s have a look at the wights to narrow this down further:
Wights are incapable of speech and do not appear to exhibit any human emotions. Their ‘swarm behaviour’ is suggestive of an outside controlling force. The state of their flesh, intact or not has no influence on their ability to attack, move or kill and they can only be destroyed by fire. We’ve already seen that the flesh is irrelevant in terms of mental capacity. The absence of or enslavement of a soul component seems to rob wights of intelligence, independent thought, speech. The only intact part of anatomy in wights are their bones.
We arrive at the following tentative conclusions:
- The soul is a repository for speech, intelligence and independent thought.
- The type of soul (animal / human / living entity) influences mental capacity of the resurrected.
- Neither flesh nor bones serve as a repository for speech, intelligence and independent thought.
So what exactly do the bones remember then?
The answer can be found here:
Summer dug up a severed arm, black and covered with hoarfrost, its fingers opening and closing as it pulled itself across the frozen snow. There was still enough meat on it to fill his empty belly, and after that was done he cracked the arm bones for the marrow. Only then did the arm remember it was dead.
Bones, wights and vulnerability
We see the arm of a wight, severed but still very much ‘alive’. Only when Summer destroys the bone does the arm ‘remember’ that it really is dead. In a world of ice and fire, the very essence of life, the basic quality of sentience, is stored within bone and I believe it is this ‘spark of life’ within the bones that is magically activated to raise the dead and transform them to the status of wights. This is also why wights are susceptible to fire – fire destroys, it consumes, it reaches deep down. It destroys the marrow thus killing off that spark of life within the bone. The same may be achieved by hacking a wight to pieces with a sword but a sword is not as effective a weapon as fire. This theory also explains why the dead have to be burned to prevent them from rising – burned to destroy the life-giving bones.
For a wight to be more than a mere zombie, a soul would be required. Because of the sheer numbers of wights resurrected, employing souls as a means to reanimation is an impractical solution. In fact, my suspicion is that the wights remain in possession of their souls and that certain aspects of the soul are deactivated and / or enslaved. What is practical though, is a means by which they can be controlled – and this is achieved via their eyes – the bright blue eyes that remind us so much of sapphires. Note also that Coldhands, an autonomous wight, does not exhibit these blue eyes. Further proof of control via the eyes can be found in Sam’s encounter with Small Paul. When Sam overcomes Small Paul with fire, the first thing that happens is that the blue light in the wight’s eyes extinguish, becoming black. Sam thrusts a burning ember into Small Paul’s mouth – this causes an explosion of fire – given the proximity of the ember to the eyes, I suspect that fire also destroys the ‘sapphire’ eyes, severing the controlling force and killing the wight.
In case you’re wondering what bones have got to do with blood – remember the above quote in which Summer cracks the bone to reach the marrow contained within. Well, in human biology, it is the marrow that produces the red blood cells. In terms of our story, it is the marrow within these bones that manufacture the traits found in the blood, or more simply, pass these traits to the blood.
Summary of findings so far:
Our experimental lab is coming along nicely. With the right kind of magic, life may be wakened from a dead person’s bones. Consciousness, intelligence, reasoning, speech and all other properties that transform a person into a thinking, proactive individual, is conferred on the individual by the incorporation of a suitable soul. Raised in this way, the dead or dying are transformed into relatively ‘normal’ humans (or animals). Should the candidate die before a resurrection attempt, the degree of prior bodily deterioration will determine whether functions such as speech can be carried out (as seen in Lady Stoneheart).In the case of a dying person, we can expect a competent sorcerer to mediate a functional revival so long as the incorporated soul is of the right type.
Given that this is possible, we can now imagine that interred skeletal remains may be brought to life. Lacking flesh, such skeletal undead will not be able to speak but they may well be able to act with a certain amount of intelligence. This means they may not even require ‘remote control’ to guide them.
That White Walkers exhibit ‘star-sapphire’ eyes suggests they are under the control of another entity. Given that the soul they receive already confers a certain consciousness and intelligence, the presence of star-sapphires also suggests that they, as White Walkers, may have some control over something or someone else.
The importance of funeral rites, bloodlines
Blood of the Dragon
In this context, remember that the Targaryens too are of a particular bloodline. They have strived to keep this bloodline, ‘the blood of the dragon’, intact by practicing incest. This power within their blood is believed to be the reason for their affinity to dragons – it may even be that special something that induces a dragon egg to hatch in the presence of a Targaryen. We also hear that dragons are ‘fire made flesh’. We are most familiar with this magical Targaryen Blood and even though we do not understand the mechanics of it, we accept ‘the blood of the dragon’ to be canon. Okay – what about other bloodlines, I ask?
Blood of the Greenseer
What exactly makes the blood of the Starks so special? Greenseeing? I don’t think so. Stark blood may confer upon them the ability to warg wolves but in my opinion, that’s about it. The strong greenseeing ability we see in Bran does not stem from his Stark blood. These qualities were transmitted to him via his mother’s line, the Tullys. What I’m saying here about bloodlines deserves a whole essay in itself – hopefully, I’ll get round to that sometime soon. For the meantime, I ask you to consider this:
Bloodraven was born Brynden Rivers, a bastard of Aegon IV Targaryen and Melissa Blackwood of First Men descent. He thus not only carries Targaryen blood in his veins, but the blood of the First Men. He is an albino, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the dominant aspect of his blood but there are other signs which can be loosely interpreted in favour of the blood of the First Men. Consider the raven-like birthmark on his face, the spy network (The Thousand Eyes and One) he set up prior to becoming a greenseer, the fact that he much preferred a weirwood bow over his Valyrian sword Dark Sister and was an expert archer (think wood dancers of the CotF here). I believe his greenseeing ability comes via his First Men blood.
Like the Blackwoods, the Tullys are also descended from the First Men. There is contextual evidence also linking the Tully family to greenseeing ability. Little Sweetrobin shows tell-tale signs of talents in this regard, his mother being Lysa Tully. This is where the Stark children’s extraordinary talents, and especially in Bran’s case, greenseeing comes from.
The Stark Wolf-Blood
The affinity to warging – which notably only involves skinchanging into wolves is a trait inherent in the Starks. It is this ability to warg wolves that is another prerequisite to creating White Walkers. I think there is evidence that the Starks have sought to maintain this bloodline over the centuries (in the event that they had lost the trait). One example of this is the extermination the Warg King and his entire household after which they kept the daughters as prizes – marring and fathering children with them to replenish their own speical bloodline.
I also propose that the Stark bloodline contains a special property, one that the bones remember in addition to the sentient spark of life inherent in all bones, and, one that lends itself to the creation of intelligent, thinking, speaking humanoid ice entities. I name this trait the ‘ice trait’ and believed it is symbolized by the blue winter roses and transmitted through the female line.
I’ll just mention funeral rites as an indication of the importance of certain bloodlines:
- Targaryens and Dothraki – practice cremation – destroy bones completely by fire
- Tullys – practice cremation and a subsequent ‘water burial’ – destroy bones by fire and ‘feed to the crabs’
- Ironborn – give bodies to the sea – ‘feeding to the crabs’ – are the bones really destroyed or is this another form of preservation? Food for thought
These folk seek to completely destroy the bones of their dead, they make sure there are no ‘remembering bones’ left that might be misused by third parties. The Tullys take particular care to destroy their bones – they cremate and drown. It wouldn’t do to have the property of greenseeing usurped by a malignant third party.
But what do the Starks do?
The Starks’ burial practices stand in direct contrast to the above mentioned. They do not destroy the bones of their dead at all. Instead, all the flesh is removed and the bones are interred in the Crypts of Winterfell. As noted above, the bones lie within heavily magically guarded stone sepulchres.
Why would the Starks seek to preserve the bones of their ancestors, specifically to create White Walkers?
Well, I have to speculate a little here. My guess is the Starks are the insurance against the malevolent Others that we see. Think about it: Imagine the scenario of the Long Night with hordes of wights, led by malevolent White Walkers, sweeping over holdfasts and cities, creating more wights every day with hardly any means of stopping them. A snowball system with a bitter ending. The most sensible thing I can think of would be to ‘lead these hosts of the slain’ (as Old Nan would put it) to a place where they can be safely destroyed, bone and all.
What better way to do this than to employ a counter White Walker, resurrected and controlled by someone like Bran for instance, who could direct that ‘friendly’ White Walker to lead the wights away from man and break the cycle of creating more wights? Beating the Others at their own game?
Last not but least, I’ll leave you with some thought-provoking questions:
Ned Stark’s bones are out there somewhere. Who has them? Would it be possible to create a white walker from their remains? What happened to Robb’s body? And Benjen Stark?
This post may also interest you: Warging and Skinchanging Unravelled.
Featured image by Redan23 on deviantart.com