"Winter is coming." For five years we've been hearing these words on HBO's Game Of Thrones, and for five years most of Westeros has continued to enjoy the longest summer in recorded history. It feels like we've been waiting for winter about as long as we've been waiting for those White Walkers to invade. If you'll take a stroll down memory lane with me, you'll remember that the very first scene of the show featured three members of the Night's Watch encountering (and being slaughtered by) the White Walkers. Season 2 ended with an army of wights marching towards the Wall, and then... nothing. While the lords and ladies of Westeros played their petty game of thrones, the White Walkers bided their time and waited.
Well, they're not waiting anymore. Last Sunday's episode featured one of the most intense action sequences in Thrones history, as the White Walkers finally showed their hand, attacking the Wildling settlement at Hardhome. Now that the interminably slow ice zombies are finally making good on their threat to invade Westeros, it's time to get to know them better. Here's your handy cheat sheet to the whos, whats, whens, wheres, and whys of the resident Game Of Thrones baddies:
1. What The Heck Are They?
The White Walkers are a species different from men, although not completely separate. (More on that in a bit.) In an email to his comic book artist, George R.R. Martin described the race as "the Sidhe made of ice" (referring to a fairy-like being of Scottish myth). They're actually fairly different on the page and onscreen. In the novels — where they're never referred to as White Walkers, but rather "the Others" — they're described as deadly but beautiful, moving with elegance and grace while sporting gleaming crystal swords and camouflaging armor. On Thrones, they're grisly, skeletal-looking creatures who wear either black armor or no armor at all.
2. Where Did They Come From?
No one really knows. Legend has it that they first appeared in Westeros over 8,000 years ago during the longest winter in history. Though they were eventually driven far to the north during the Battle for the Dawn, they were never fully eradicated, so The Wall was raised to keep them out of the Seven Kingdoms. But, over the millennia, they passed from fact into fairy tale, until no one believed in their existence anymore. Of course, it's impossible to say where they keep coming from, since we don't know their mating habits — but thanks to a revealing scene in Season 4, we know at least some of their reproduction stems from turning human babies into White Walkers with the icy touch of a finger.
3. What Language Do They Speak?
You probably couldn't just stroll up to a White Walker and have a conversation with it. (Why would you want to?) They speak a language called Skroth, which sounds like sheets of ice cracking and splintering.
4. What Do They Want?
Since no one speaks Skroth, no one really knows — but it seems clear their goal is something along the lines of world domination. Westeros is coming off of one of the longest summers in recorded history, and a long summer is always followed by a long winter. So, the White Walkers have waited until perhaps the longest winter since their first incursion into Westeros to embark on their second invasion. Judging by how mercilessly they've slaughtered every human we've seen them come across, I think it's safe to say their motives are less than pure.
5. Who Is Their Leader?
Meet the Night's King. In the books, here's merely a figure of legend, a former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch who fell in love with (and gave his soul to) a beautiful female White Walker. He was eventually defeated by the combined might of the Starks, the Night's Watch, and the Wildlings. But Thrones has shifted this figure from myth to actual character, dubbing him the leader of the White Walkers. If he shares his origin with his book counterpart, then he is actually Jon Snow's distant ancestor.
6. Do They Worship Any Gods?
Religion has always been a consistent theme on Thrones, but it has come to the forefront more than usual this season thanks to Arya's sojourn in the House of Black and White and Cersei reinstating the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant. Melisandre has long claimed that the White Walkers are servants of a god called the Great Other, who exists in direct opposition to her Lord of Light, R'hllor. It will be interesting to learn whether the Great Other, as the representative of death, is in any way associated with any of the show's other death-obsessed deities, like the Ironborn's Drowned God or the Faceless Men's Many-Faced God.
7. How Can They Be Killed?
White Walkers are impervious to most man-made weapons; their ice-cold blades will shatter normal steel. There are only two things that can kill them: dragonglass (aka obsidian, aka volcanic glass, aka solid fire) and Valyrian steel. We just learned this latter method during the battle of Hardhome, when Jon used his Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw, to kill one of the Night's King's lieutenants. Too bad that the art of making Valyrian steel was lost with the Doom of Valyria; there are only about a dozen such swords left in the world.
8. How Are They Different From Wights?
OK, this one can get confusing for those who haven't read the books. Wights are merely corpses that have been reanimated by White Walkers for use as foot soldiers in their war. So, how can you tell them apart? White Walkers are sentient beings that all look similar, are created by converting live humans, and can be killed with dragonglass. Wights are mindless beings that all look different (some are even decayed skeletons), are created by raising the dead, and can only be killed with fire.
9. Are They Really 100% Evil?
This is a great question. Martin has created such a complex world filled with so many varying shades of grey — very few of his "villains" are outright bad guys, and very few of his "heroes" are always good — it seems strange that the story would ultimately come down to such a black-and-white conflict between good and evil. And, life vs. death is as black-and-white as it gets. This leads many book readers to believe there's more going on with the White Walkers than meets the eye... although the more vicious way they're portrayed on the show belies that theory.
But, we've only seen the White Walkers through the human characters' eyes — just as we originally only saw Rhaegar Targaryen through the lens of Robert Baratheon's hatred for the man who "stole" his betrothed. We eventually learned that Rhaegar was a gentle man who truly loved Lyanna Stark; could we eventually learn something that makes us sympathize with the plight of the ice zombies? Maybe they're being driven from their home by an even graver threat that lies even farther north, and they're turning humans into wights to help combat this ultimate evil. I don't know, I'm spitballing here.
But, if George R.R. Martin could turn Jaime Lannister from a child-murdering incest-having scumbag into one of his story's most beloved characters, anything is possible.