History of Thrones: The Night King, White Walkers, and the Army of the Dead

Warning: This post contains spoilers for this week’s Game of Thrones, so if the thought of reading them leaves you feeling cold, or if you have an icy disposition towards info from the books, don’t march beyond the Wall of this introduction.



We hate to engage in hyperbole, but it might be time to start taking the Night King seriously, because killing a dragon with a magic ice javelin and recruiting it into his army of the dead is what you would call a real (blue) eye opener.

We covered the first Long Night in our History of Thrones series last year, but now we’re really (REALLY) worried about the present. So to try and understand the awesome, terrifying powers of the ice-demons from beyond the Wall, as well as what the Night King might really be capable of, we’re looking at everything we know about the White Walkers and their leader, from both the novels and the show (including this most recent, dragon-killing episode).

The White Walkers are one of the few topics where the show has given us way more information than the novels—even though this was only the 11th appearance for them in the TV series—and that was true long before Game of Thrones surpassed the books. But the two have overlapped on some of the most important matters.

The White Walkers (known as the Others in the books) are a pale, icy humanoid species from the furthest reaches north of the Wall, in the Lands of Always Winter. They are gaunt with blue eyes, a trait they share with the reanimated corpses they raise to be soldiers in their army of the dead. These zombie-like creatures are known as wights, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of decomposition.

Until the latest episode “Beyond the Wall,” it wasn’t clear if all White Walkers could raise the dead or just the Night King (a character not yet introduced in the novels), but it seems to be a power they all have now that it looks like their “own” wights also die (un-die? re-die?) when they are killed.

What is still not clear though is how close a White Walker has to physically be to make a dead man rise, or if there is a way to delay when it happens.

Lord Commander Mormont was attacked on the show and in the novels by a dead member of the Night’s Watch, Othor. His corpse was brought back from beyond the Wall, but that night Othor came back as a wight and tried to kill Mormont. Was a White Walker close to Castle Black that night to bring him back, or had they used their unknown magic on Othor before he was found and he was waiting to rise? Whatever it was, Jon stopped Othor by setting him on fire, after stabbing him didn’t stop him.

They do wear armor–on the show they seemed to have started wearing it after Sam killed one with dragonglass–which offers them protection (it’s a more magical type of armor in the books). No one knows if they are responsible for the terrible cold and harsh storms that follow them everywhere, or if they follow the storms.

Wights can be killed either by fire (burning a body is the only way to prevent the dead from becoming a wight in the first place), or if they are completely dismembered–though Othor’s hand kept moving in the books long after he was burnt. However the White Walkers are so cold they extinguish fires when they walk through them, like when the Night King easily strolled through the wall of fire the Children of the Forest set up in front of the Three-Eyed Raven’s hiding place.

White Walkers are also incredibly strong, able to throw men as big as Sam far distances. They also use weapons of ice, which shatter the normal steel weapons of men and can pierce dragon scales. While Sam killed one with a dagger of dragonglass in both versions, only the TV show saw a White Walker die from a Valyrian steel sword, when Jon shattered one with a single blow at Hardhome. Valyrian steel is also the only weapon not to shatter when struck by a White Walker’s ice sword.

Besides dead humans (and on the show, giants), the White Walkers can raise dead animals, and are often seen riding zombie horses. The tales of the Long Night say that when they marched on the living they were accompanied by giant ice spiders, but if the legends are true they haven’t appeared in either version yet. The legend never said anything about dead dragons though.

Two of the most terrifying revelations from the show have included the “birth” of White Walkers. The first was their creation by the Children of the Forest (at least 8,000 years ago, but maybe even much longer), when they pushed a piece of dragonglass into the heart of a man. They eventually lost control of their weapon and had to join with the First Men to defeat them.

There are tales of female White Walkers, the most notorious being the one from the legend of the first Night King (we’ll get to that), but Game of Thrones has only shown male ones. But we know how they “reproduce,” because the show had a scene where a White Walker brought one of Craster’s sacrificed sons back to some sort of home base. The Night King approached, touched his finger below the baby’s eye, and rather than becoming a wight he became a White Walker.

As for proof of female White Walkers, the most infamous tale came from Old Nan’s story about the Night King. The legends say he was the 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who saw a woman beyond the Wall “with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars.” He pursued her, and then the two ruled together as King and Queen of Night for 13 years at the Nightfort, where they were said to have committed horrible atrocities. The Night’s Watch was eventually freed by the combined forces of the King of Winter, Brandon Stark, and the King-Beyond-The-Wall Joramun. Yas, the same Joramun of the famed Horn of Winter, which legend says can bring down the Wall.

While Game of Thrones has revealed most of the horrifying truths about the White Walkers, there is one terrifying fact it has left out: wights seem to retain some memory of who they were. Othor seemed to know exactly who and where the Lord Commander was and specifically targeted him. In the novels Alliser Thorne tells Jon, “You’d best pray that it’s a wildling blade that kills me, though. The ones the Others kill don’t stay dead—and they remember.” When the skinchanger, Varamyr Sixskins, tried to warg into a woman as he was dying, she went crazy, tearing out her own eyes. That attracted wights who killed her, and when Varamyr looked back at her from his new wolf body he thought she recognized him.

Is the Night King of legend the same Night King leading the White Walkers now? We don’t know, but we do know he has incredible powers we don’t fully understand. He can control dead animals, turn baby humans into one of his own kind, raise children and giants alike, and he can make a single dead man or tens of thousands of them rise as easily as he lifts his hands.

But what might be most terrifying is that his army is not made up of mindless wights. In the same way the White Walkers contain some element of humanity, so too do their army of the dead.

What does that mean for a dead dragon? Could its mother be his target, the same way Othor went after his Lord Commander? Could other secret Targaryens, who share an unspoken bond with dragons, also be the ire of the Night King’s newest flying weapon? And since a dead dragon is part of the army of ice, will a deadly cold come from his mouth instead of flames?

The living should have opened their eyes long ago and dealt with the White Walkers, because now the Night King has a dragon, and that might result in all of their eyes turning blue.

What other powers do you think the White Walkers have? What did you think of tonight’s revelations about them? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Images: HBO

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