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Ask the Maester: Everything We Know About the Night King As We Bid Adieu

Does it make sense that he can withstand dragonfire? Is he a Targaryen? Plus: Can Bran just warg into Cersei and kill her?

HBO/Ringer illustration

I love Jon Snow, a.k.a. Aegon Targaryen, and I readily admit that he’s won more battles than me. He’s 5-0-1* in battle (Battle of Craster’s Keep, Battle of Castle Black, Hardhome*, Battle of the Bastards, Bad Plan Raid, and Battle of Winterfell) which, by any measure, is an elite record. So this next bit comes from a place of love and respect.

His plan for the Battle of Winterfell placed Ghost on the front lines when he’d be much better used defending Bran in the godswood. His plan also resulted in Dothraki genocide when he sent all—again, all—the Dothraki cavalry charging into pitch darkness against an enemy that would not break under cavalry charge, and completely ignored their utility as mounted archers. He built a fire trench (with a collapsible bridge) BEHIND his army, which cut off their route of retreat. He placed his siege weapons out in the open instead of inside the castle and fired them only once. Finally, he yelled at a dragon when it wouldn’t stop breathing blue fire at him. Whatever. A win is a win. On to your questions.

Tim asks: “From a TV plotting perspective it obviously makes sense that the Night King is immune to dragonfire—raises the stakes, heightens the tension, etc. But is this another case of the writers slightly missing the boat on the fantasy elements of the show? Sure, it’s not confirmed that Valyrian steel was originally forged with dragonfire, but, if we’re being honest, that’s as sure of a thing as R+L=J. So, my understanding would then be that dragonfire is perhaps the key ingredient in Valyrian steel that could kill a White Walker. Or is it more likely that Valryian steel actually contains obsidian, as well?”

I agree that when it comes to the fantasy elements the show lacks the same deftness with which it handles interfamily drama and political maneuvering. That said, while there are plenty of other fair criticisms one could make about the handling of the Night King (shout-out to my dude whose 8,000-year drive to kill the Three-Eyed Raven was stuffed at the 1-yard line), I don’t think his imperviousness to dragonflame is necessarily one of them.

While dragonfire certainly seems as if it was part of the Valyrian steel manufacturing process, and Valyrian steel kills White Walkers, it doesn’t necessarily follow that, therefore, dragonfire should kill White Walkers.

It’s important to remember that the recipe for Valyrian steel has been lost for centuries since the Doom wiped out the Valyrian Freehold. Dragonfire almost certainly was used to forged the steel, sure, but the Valyrian smiths also are rumored to have used spells to weave magic into the metal. Perhaps this long-forgotten sorcery is the source of Valyrian steel’s White Walker–slaying properties. After all, the Targaryens, the lone dragonlords to escape the cataclysm in Valyria, were never able to replicate the fabled metal. This suggests that the recipe for Valyrian steel was considered a state secret, such that even the empire’s elites didn’t have access to it.

I think you’ve hit on something, however. Obsidian is a form of volcanic glass. The Valyrian Freehold had volcanoes in abundance. The Fourteen Flames, a string of powerful volcanoes that stretched across the Valyrian peninsula, were the source of the Freehold’s power and wealth. Legend has it that early Valyrians herders discovered dragons nesting under the Fourteen Flames. Somehow, they unlocked the secret to domesticating the beasts. Behind these dreaded flames, the Valyrians conquered most of Essos, razed ancient cities, and enslaved whole populations.

While the Valyrian dragon-power origin story is possibly apocryphal, what is certain is the mines honeycombing the Fourteen Flames provided the empire with a wealth of minerals, gems, and ores. Among these natural resources were the raw materials for Valyrian steel, which were dredged up by countless slaves. It seems possible that it’s the heat and flames from the earth (volcanoes and not dragonflame) that provide obsidian and Valyrian steel with their stopping power. This hypothesis is backed up by the Valyrian word for dragonglass—zīrtys perzys—which means “frozen fire.”

One important caveat: The evidence that dragonfire was used to forge Valyrian steel comes from comments George R.R. Martin has made in interviews. That’s as close as you can get to canonical without written confirmation. The text itself, however, only suggests this. It’s a fine distinction, but one worth exploring.

At the end of A Game of Thrones, after Drogo’s death and the dissolution of his khalasar, Daenerys, desperate to win the allegiances of those who remain, dispenses her bridal gifts along with promises of glory and greatness. Then she gets to Jorah. With nothing left to give away, all she has are words. Though, of course, that’s more than enough. “I swear to you,” she tells the now-late Ser Jorah of the Friend Zone, “one day you shall have from my hands a longsword like none the world has ever seen, dragon-forged and made of Valyrian steel.”

As mentioned, the secret to Valyrian steel has long been lost. If the Targaryens knew how to manufacture more, they would have. So Dany—understanding that Jorah simply needs a little attention and affirmation—is selling him a line of bullshit here. But heartwarming bullshit, nonetheless.

Until Martin actually writes dragonflame as part of the process that forges Valyrian steel, he can still change his mind.

Kent asks: “Hey! So can we talk about exactly wtf the Night King is? My guess after seeing him walk unscathed from Drogon is that he might be an ancient Targaryen or at least have Valyrian blood.”

Joana asks, “Is the Night King a Targaryen?”

When thinking about the Night King’s strengths (is immortal unless attacked with Valyrian steel in a specific way; can raise the dead; has super-strength; has the ability to magically shatter the ground as he did at the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave; can throw a javelin approximately 5 miles) and weaknesses (one-stab kill potential; has no personality or discernible motivation beyond being super evil) it’s important to remember that he is totally a creation of the show.

Mallory Rubin and I are on record with our belief that Thrones has mostly fumbled the fantasy elements of George R.R. Martin’s story. I think the handling of the Night King underlines that in stark terms (sorry). We still have no idea what he wanted beyond “kill the Three-Eyed Raven,” and we discovered that only last episode. He was barely a character. To borrow from the show, in the words of Gendry, the Night King was simply “really bad.” And just like our favorite inarticulate blacksmith bastard, the show hasn’t really put much effort into fleshing out the army of the dead’s leader beyond just showing us again and again that he’s, well, really bad.

In the books, the Night King—or the Night’s King—is quite a different person.

As the story goes, back in the Age of Heroes, not long after the Wall was raised by Bran the Builder, a certain brother of the Watch rose to become the order’s 13th Lord Commander. He might have been a Stark or a Bolton or even a Skagosi from the cannibal island of Skagos. In those days, the Watch was headquartered at the Nightfort, the largest of the Watch’s strongholds, and the castles along the Wall were fully manned. The tales agree that one day, while standing guard atop the Wall, the Lord Commander glimpsed a woman—with skin “white as the moon” and eyes a ghostly blue—in the woods on the northern side. Was she a sorceress? Some kind of White Walker? Or, like Benjen Stark, something in between? We don’t know. But the Lord Commander was enchanted … and apparently aroused. He left his post, crossed to the far side of the Wall, found her, and made love to her.

The Lord Commander returned to the Nightfort with his pale bride. He declared himself the Night’s King and the pale woman his queen. His former Night’s Watch brothers fell under their dark spell. Soon the Night’s King and his white queen had carved out an evil kingdom for themselves there in the shadow of the Wall with the Nightfort as its foul capital. For 13 years they reigned.

It took an alliance between Brandon “The Breaker” Stark the King in the North and Joramun the (first?) wildling King-Beyond-the-Wall to bring down the Night’s King and his queen. In the aftermath, when it was discovered that the Night’s King had been making sacrifices to the White Walkers, all of the Watch’s records pertaining to his time as the 13th Lord Commander were purged and, in a Voldemortian move, even the mention of his name was forbidden. This, in my opinion, lends credence to the idea that the Night’s King, at least in the books, was a Stark. House Stark and House Bolton, even then, shared a long and bloody history of mutual enmity. If the Night’s King was a Bolton, publicizing that fact would be useful to the Stark kings in the North. If he was a Stark … well, that would need to be covered up. Who else would have the power and influence to do that but the Starks of Winterfell?

The book Night’s King’s backstory, apocryphal or not, is very cool. It’s a shame the show’s Night King wasn’t handled in the same way.

Reese asks, “What effect, if any, does the Night King’s death have on the seasons in Westeros?”

Emily asks: “Now that the Night King is gone, are there still seasons? Is there still a winter as we know it?”

Great question. Cycles are huge theme of Game of Thrones and the ASOIAF series. Did the White Walkers cause the generation-long winter known as the Long Night? Or did the uncommonly long winter awaken the White Walkers? We could ask the same question about their reawakening at the start of our story. Is it the impending end of the longest summer in living memory that brings back the cold winds, or vice versa?

While we don’t exactly know the answer, I’d guess that, while the Night King and the White Walkers amplify darkness and cold, the irregular cycle of seasons will continue as before. After all, winters still came to Westeros after the White Walkers were vanquished to end the first Long Night.

Patrick asks: “I know it would make for terrible storytelling, but if he wanted to, couldn’t Bran warg into Cersei and have her jump off a cliff? I know that specific scenario is absolutely never going to happen, but in general I don’t understand how there is any military tension remaining, considering the unmatched weapons the Stark/Targaryen side still possesses.”

This is an interesting point and gets at the source of, in my opinion, a lot of the clunkiness in seasons 7 and 8. At the end of Season 6, Dany sailed from Essos with a vast fleet: tens of thousands of Dothraki screamers, something less than 8,000 Unsullied, three dragons, and the best advisers in the game. Clearly, the showrunners considered Dany’s massive power imbalance in relation to Cersei a problem in need of a solution. If she wished, she could just fly her dragons over the Red Keep and melt the castle around Cersei’s ears. The result is all “you don’t want to be queen of the ashes” talk; Yara’s fleet getting destroyed; the Tyrells and the Reach getting wiped out because, like, they were bad at fighting (???); Tyrion coming up with terrible plan after terrible plan; the idea to go north of the Wall that lost Dany a dragon; and ultimately, the decision to take on the Night King in Episode 3 so that Cersei and the Golden Company can be on (kind of) even footing with the battered Targaryen-Stark army.

This is why I find Tyrion’s continued losing streak to be such an ironic theme for Season 8. Dany’s totally fair criticisms of Tyrion are essentially criticisms of the show for giving him those plans, the goal of which was to keep Cersei intact until the end of the series.

Jason asks, “Wondering what you think Bran was doing while at the weirwood tree?”

Who knows? Clearly he spent some of that time scouting through a flock of ravens. Which wasn’t really important since he didn’t relay any of the information about the Night King’s location. One of our pet theories is that Bran, like Dr. Strange in Avengers: Endgame, is something like the keeper of the timelines, making sure that the cycles spin out as they should and that past paradoxes (i.e., Wylis’s becoming Hodor) play out in the way they are meant to. Perhaps he was subtly nudging pieces into place so that the Theon distraction/Arya death-strike would happen just as it had to. That’s all conjecture, though.

Whatever the case, I don’t think we’re done with Bran. His offscreen conversation with Tyrion from Episode 2 has yet to pay off, and we have to believe that it must.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.