Can the White Walkers on Game of Thrones be stopped – and what does the Night King want?

Lela London
The Night King - HBO

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’s seventh 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”.

What are the White Walkers?

The White Walkers are an ancient race of humanoid ice creatures. They live beyond the Wall, in the very north of Westeros. Whether they thrive in cold conditions or die in warmer ones is unknown, but now winter has arrived they’re able to walk south – and are walking with a vengeance.

Since we haven’t heard them speak, we’ve got no idea of their motives; but at the rate they’re killing the Night’s Watch and Wildlings, it seems pretty clear they don’t come in peace.

Where do they come from?

Thousand of years ago, the Children of the Forest, an ancient race who inhabited Westeros before humans, created them to protect themselves from the First Men. But the White Walkers eventually turned on the Children, who then helped Bran the Builder (the founder of House Stark) create the Wall to keep them out of the Seven Kingdoms.

The White Walkers slowly passed from fact to folklore. However in the first episode of the series, reports of the White Walkers reached Ned Stark and, soon, the rest of Westeros.

Thanks to the final scene in season four’s episode Oathkeeper we have some idea of how the White Walkers’ numbers keep increasing. After seizing Craster’s last son, the Night King turns the baby into a White Walker by touching his face (turning the baby’s eyes icy blue).

What’s the difference between White Walkers and wights?

Wights are humans the White Walkers have raised from the dead to act on their behalf, sometimes referred to as the Army of the Dead. All those slain Wildlings that rose up at the end of the Hardhome episode? They’re Wights.

It looks as though the Night King can turn dead humans to Wights as soon as they’ve been killed. While White Walkers are sentient, Wights are just zombie-like walking corpses and can only be killed by fire or dragonglass.

What kills White Walkers?

A dragonglass spear

So far, the show has demonstrated that the materials dragonglass and Valyrian steel (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 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.

Upon being stabbed with either of these materials, a Walker’s body rapidly begins to freeze before shattering explosively.

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.

Credit: HBO

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 while under the control of the Night King.

Can wights and White Walkers cross the wall?

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.

Who is the leader of the White Walkers? ?

Credit: HBO

The Night King is the leader of the White Walkers. With a crown of icy horns, eerily long fingernails and electric blue eyes, he’s pretty hard to miss. In season six’s episode The Door, we see the Children of Forest turn a human into the Night King by plunging what looked like a dragonglass dagger into his heart. Does this mean he was the first White Walker? We don’t officially know, but many take it as a sign that he was.

Who plays the Night King?

The Night King has been played by two actors throughout the series’ run. In the season four episode Oathkeeper – where we first meet the Night King – and the season five episode Hardhome, the character is portrayed by Welsh-American actor Richard Brake (who is also known for playing Joe Chill in Batman Begins)

From season six the character was portrayed by Slovak actor Vladimir Furdik.

Is the Night King the same as the Night’s King?

No: the Night King is a creation for the TV series. Confusingly, in the books there’s a character called the Night's King but he’s slightly different. 

A figure of folklore, he’s a former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. After falling in love with a female White Walker, he was killed in a battle against the Starks, the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings. Because their names are so similar, a lot of people incorrectly use the names interchangeably.

The White Walkers/Bran theory

In season six we saw the Children of the Forest create the Night King by plunging a dragonglass dagger into the heart of a man.

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. Fans have even speculated that the Night King and the young Stark may (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.

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 had to join forces with humanity to survive being attacked by the White Walkers.

The White Walkers climate change theory

Fan theorists say that George R R Martin wrote the White Walkers as a metaphor for climate change: an inhuman destructive force, they’re a seemingly unstoppable threat to the entire human race.

The houses are too busy fighting among themselves to pay attention to them – with some characters even denying they exist. They even affect the weather, bringing a snowstorm when they arrived at the Battle of Hardhome. Could Game of Thrones, a television show infamous for its violence and nudity, actually be an allegory for environmental concerns? Only time will tell if the theory stands up.

What do the White Walkers want?

walkers

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 erected 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.

night king

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 prophesied 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 was the man in question but she later revised this theory (conveniently, after Stannis is dead and his daughter Shireen burned alive).

Jon Snow battles a wight

Though many now have their money on Jon Snow to fit the heroic bill, there is no reason the prophesied saviour has to be male. Daenerys, too, could technically be a candidate for Azor Ahai.

Ultimately, most fans suspect that both characters will have a significant part to play in the seemingly inevitable forthcoming war against the dead.

Dragonglass at the ready…

Seasons 1 - 7are available to watch on NOW TV  (with a 7 day free trial), along with the new season from April 15