Is it excessive to speculate about characters who may or may not be on a show that hasn’t even been green-lit? Yes, totally. But this is Game of Thrones, so let’s do it anyway.
On Friday, HBO announced a pilot—cowritten by showrunner Jane Goldman and George R. R. Martin—for a Thrones prequel series set during the Age of Heroes, a time some 10,000 years before the events in the current show. Martin hasn’t published any stories that take place during that era of history, so everything the public knows comes from what current Westerosi citizens know in the novels and The World of Ice and Fire companion book. And that isn’t much. As Samwell Tarly says in A Feast for Crows:
The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for a hundred years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights.
With so little to go off, the writers for this new series could show us the construction of the Wall, the origin of Azor Ahai, the founding of the Night’s Watch, and more—there are so many ancient stories, legends, and myths in Martin’s world that shape current events in Westeros but haven’t been explored on the screen or the page. But like the series that inspired it, the success (or failure) of this pilot won’t be about legends or history. It will be about characters.
Martin is lauded for his world-building, and rightfully so. There aren’t many fictional universes that allow storytellers to go back 10,000 years—roughly double the length of recorded human history—without straining belief. The magic in being able to dive 1,000 pages deep into the Song of Ice and Fire mythos and feel like you’ve still barely scratched the surface is unrivaled. But Westeros is only as compelling as the characters who inhabit it, and that’s where Martin’s true magic is. Thrones would be nothing without heroes like Daenerys and Jon, villains like Cersei and Joffrey, antiheroes like Arya and the Hound, and complicated souls like Jaime and Tyrion—and so many others. The lore might make for great late-night binges, but there’d be no reason to dive into it without equally interesting characters. The best version of this new show will marry those two together. So with that said, let’s take a sneak peek at some of the characters who roamed Westeros (and Essos) during the Age of Heroes.
Brandon the Builder
This is probably one of the “Starks of legend” the HBO press release mentioned. Brandon the Builder, the founder of House Stark, supposedly raised Winterfell, the Wall, Storm’s End, the Hightower at Oldtown, and basically every other big, old structure in Westeros (so: a lot of them). Legend also holds that he granted “the Gift”—an expanse of land that stretches from coast to coast south of the Wall—to the Night’s Watch for the order’s sustenance.
Unless Brandon is Frank Lloyd Wright, Daedalus, and Bob the Builder all rolled into one, it’s impossible to think he built this much of Westeros himself, and Martin has all but confirmed just that, saying in 2000 that “no one can even say for certain if Brandon the Builder ever lived. He is as remote from the time of the novels as Noah and Gilgamesh are from our own time.” That actually undersells it—Gilgamesh lived some 5,000 years ago, which is only half the length of time that separates Brandon from the current events in Westeros.
More likely than not, the “Brandon the Builder” of legend is an amalgamation of multiple different Stark kings. But that shouldn’t stop the showrunners from playing with a character like him. The HBO statement promised legendary Starks; no Stark is more legendary than Brandon the Builder.
Lann the Clever
Lann the Clever founded House Lannister, and he’s basically the original Tyrion. Like Tyrion, he has a knack for schemes and plots. Here’s how Ned Stark describes Lann in A Game of Thrones:
The Lannisters were an old family, tracing their descent back to Lann the Clever, a trickster from the Age of Heroes who was no doubt as legendary as Bran the Builder, though far more beloved of singers and taletellers. In the songs, Lann was the fellow who winkled the Casterlys out of Casterly Rock with no weapon but his wits, and stole gold from the sun to brighten his curly hair.
Also like Tyrion, Lann apparently knew every nook and cranny of Casterly Rock. In Season 7 of the show, Tyrion conquers Casterly Rock by sneaking a group of Unsullied through a secret passageway in the sewers. This mirrors the most common story told about how Lann took the Rock: He lathered himself in butter to squeeze through a secret passageway and proceeded to whisper in the ears of the Casterlys as they slept, turning them against one another. After the Casterlys became convinced the Rock was haunted, they fled, and Lann swooped in to gain control of their castle and the riches it held within.
But that’s just a legend, and the more realistic story is that Lann was a guard for the Casterlys and impregnated one of the lord’s daughters. He then leveraged that pregnancy into a marriage. If that lord had no trueborn sons, the Rock would have passed to the daughter—and Lann.
However Lann swindled the Casterlys, any Lannister who is called “the Clever” should make for great television. And there are virtually no tales about what he did after he gained control of the Rock—that period of time could be even more interesting than the tale that earned Lann his nickname.
Durran Godsgrief is the founder of House Durrandon, which held the stormlands before the Baratheons. He married Elenei, the goddess of the wind and daughter of the sea god. Upon learning that their daughter intended to marry a mortal, Elenei’s parents were enraged, and created a storm that killed Durran’s guests on his wedding night. Durran built a castle to withstand the storms, but the gods destroyed it. He repeated this many times, each time seeing his fortifications wiped out until the seventh castle finally withstood the storm. That earned the castle its name: Storm’s End.
Do you remember who supposedly helped Durran build Storm’s End? Brandon the Builder! House Stark and House Baratheon have a strong friendship at the beginning of Game of Thrones through Ned and Robert, who are old allies and close friends. It’s possible the prequel could build a similar type of alliance between Brandon and Durran.
Garth Greenhand was alive during the Dawn Age, before men stepped foot onto Westeros, and may have been around for the Age of Heroes as well. He seems like more of a myth than a historical figure, seeing as he supposedly invented farming, carried a bottomless bag full of the seeds of all the world’s plants, and could impregnate women just by touching them. He’s the supposed ancestor of House Gardener (as well as many other houses, given his incredible, uh, fertility).
Many Westeros maesters have found this to be far-fetched, and believe it more likely that Garth was a leader of the First Men who originally arrived in Westeros. The nearly godlike legends that surround him came centuries after.
Garth the Gardener
The firstborn son of Garth Greenhand, Garth the Gardener seems like a much more historically plausible figure and, thus, one that would make more sense for the pilot. Yet there isn’t much known about him. Garth built a home atop the hill that eventually became Highgarden, where the Tyrells later ruled. House Gardener lorded over that region until Aegon the Conqueror arrived in Westeros and installed the Tyrells as the lords of the Reach. While Garth himself doesn’t offer much obvious excitement, Thrones made it to Highgarden only in Season 7, so there is much left to explore.
The Grey King
The Grey King got his name because his hair, skin, and eyes were “as grey as a winter sea,” but I think he should be called King Badass. The ancient King of the Iron Islands wore robes of seaweed, a crown of sea dragon teeth, and lived in a castle made of sea dragon bone from a beast he killed himself. He married a mermaid and reigned for 1,007 years. You might be starting to catch on to how Westerosi legends don’t stand up to intense academic scrutiny. Let’s just say they haven’t been peer reviewed.
If Bran the Builder, Lann the Clever, and many of the other heroes feel somewhat apocryphal, the Grey King is straight up impossible. He brought fire to Westeros by playing chicken with the Storm God, invented sailing, created the first longship out of a demon tree that ate humans, warmed his castle with the fire of the sea dragon he killed, and sired 100 sons.
I don’t think a character this hyperbolic will make it onto the show (what would he even do?), but his existence, even in legend, is an indicator that the scope for this show can be as grand or as grounded as the showrunners choose.
An ancient warrior who fought with a long, double-bladed staff, Symeon Star-Eyes was also blind. He apparently placed “star sapphires” into his empty eye sockets, hence the name. Bran mentions in A Game of Thrones that Symeon could chop down two men at once, and the citizens of Westeros tend to look to him as someone to be admired, a symbol of bravery and courage. But little else is known about him—the prequel could turn this character into just about anyone.
Serwyn of the Mirror Shield
Serwyn of the Mirror Shield served House Gardener in the Reach. He gets his name from how he slayed the dragon Urrax: by approaching the beast from behind his reflective shield. As Tyrion explains in A Dance With Dragons, “Urrax saw only his own reflection until Serwyn had plunged his spear through his eye.”
Singers say he was part of the Kingsguard, but that institution was introduced to Westeros by Aegon the Conqueror thousands of years later. Like Symeon Star-Eyes, Serwyn of the Mirror Shield is a mostly blank slate that the pilot could have some fun with.
Grazdan the Great
More like Grazdan the Not at All Great. Grazdan founded Ghis, a city built on slave labor that predated the settling of Slaver’s Bay. The HBO statement promised to explore “the mysteries of the East” with this new show, but little is known about anything going on that far east in ancient times. That makes Grazdan one of the few places to start.
The Night King
The Night King is the only Thrones character that could conceivably also make an appearance in a prequel set 10,000 years in the past. Though there is an ancient character in the books called the Night’s King (note the apostrophe), a former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who fell in love with a female White Walker and reigned terror on the Nightfort for 13 years, he’s not the same guy as our Olympic javelin-throwing champion on the current show. The ice zombie king is different, and we already know the basics of his origin.
The Children of the Forest admitted in Season 6 to creating the Night King by plunging a blade of dragonglass into the chest of one of the First Men. The Night King was the first White Walker, and he and the other White Walkers were meant to defend the Children of the Forest from the rest of the First Men, who were invading Westeros at that time. Obviously, it didn’t quite work out that way, and soon the Night King brought Westeros into the Long Night. It’s hard to think HBO could tell the story Westeros’s “darkest hour” without also telling the origin of the Night King. And since the Night King is such a mysterious character, the prequel could be the perfect opportunity to flesh out the main villain on Thrones.
The First Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch
Jon Snow is, supposedly, the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. No one knows who was the first. As Sam explains to Jon in A Feast for Crows, “We say that you’re the nine hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but the oldest list I’ve found shows six hundred seventy-four commanders.” The first Lord Commander may have been the Last Hero (more on him in a minute) or may have come decades or centuries after the Last Hero lived. But any show about the Long Night would seemingly have to include the story of the order’s formation.
You know this guy—Melisandre won’t stop talking about him. He fought against a darkness that enveloped the entire known world by creating Lightbringer, a hero’s sword that glows in flame. He labored for 100 days and nights before tempering the blade by plunging it through the heart of his own wife.
But what, actually, did Azor Ahai do? It’s never clear—the books’ characters always talk about him in vague terms. But it certainly sounds like the “darkness” he fought could be similar to the Long Night. Speaking of which ...
The Last Hero
The Last Hero is the person who ended the Long Night by winning the Battle for the Dawn. Most of what we know about him comes from Old Nan in A Game of Thrones:
Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—
RIP, puppy. A good boy to the end. The Last Hero went on to find the Children of the Forest, formed the Night’s Watch, and won the Battle for the Dawn, ending the Long Night and bringing light back to Westeros. But how? Who was he? (The characters in Westeros refer to the Last Hero as a “he,” but we don’t even have his real name. Could the Last Hero have been a woman? Totally. Speaking of which … where are all the women in the Age of Heroes, anyway?) Is the Last Hero also Azor Ahai, or are they different? And what happened after that battle? If the new series is going to show “the world’s descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour,” then the Last Hero will almost certainly be onscreen. The Last Hero saved the world and made Westeros what it is today. With this prequel, his triumph may no longer be a myth or a legend—it’ll be a story.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.