Now that Game Of Thrones has gone beyond where the books last left off, does anyone else occasionally forget that they’re based on books in the first place? Because I sure do, which is weird considering how obsessed I was with George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series during the first few seasons. Even though the show is a much different animal now, it’s still useful to go back to the original source material sometimes — but, for example, if you’re looking for Game Of Thrones book references to the Night King, then you are totally out of luck.
That’s right, the terrifying White Walker that an know now as the Night King is very, very different than any kind of character who appears in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series. However, there is a “Night’s King” (the apostrophe is very important!) who exists as a sort of legendary hero in Westerosi folklore. According to the tale that Bran Stark recalls in A Storm Of Swords, the Night’s King was the thirteenth commander of the Night’s Watch, until he saw a woman atop the Wall, “with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars.”
Naturally he went after her, and after the two became intimate, he brought her back to the Nightfort and declared that they would be king and queen; they even used “strange sorceries” to brainwash his Sworn Brothers and began making sacrifices to the White Walkers. They ruled for 13 years until the Starks and the Wildlings teamed up to stop them, and afterwards all records of him were destroyed.
The tale gets a little personal to Bran after that:
"Some say he was a Bolton," Old Nan would always end. "Some say a Magnar out of Skagos, some say Umber, Flint, or Norrey. Some would have you think he was a Woodfoot, from them who ruled Bear Island before the ironmen came. He never was. He was a Stark, the brother of the man who brought him down." She always pinched Bran on the nose then, he would never forget it. "He was a Stark of Winterfell, and who can say? Mayhaps his name was Brandon. Mayhaps he slept in this very bed in this very room."
No, Bran thought, but he walked in this castle, where we'll sleep tonight. He did not like that notion very much at all. Night's King was only a man by light of day, Old Nan would always say, but the night was his to rule. And it's getting dark.
So far, there’s been no mention of the Night’s King in Game Of Thrones, but he’s mentioned in a Season 2 Blu-Ray featurette about the history of the Night’s Watch, which might be a clue that his story is still present in D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s adaptation. The leader of the White Walkers, by contrast, has a very different origin story; in Season 6 it’s strongly implied that he was the first White Walker created by the Children Of The Forest, meaning that he predates the Night’s Watch and the Wall by at least a few thousand years.
In any case, George R.R. Martin seems to thinks of the two characters as distinct, and has suggested that the Night’s King will not suddenly reappear as a White Walker in A Song Of Ice And Fire. In an answer to a reader question on his Livejournal, he said: “In the books he is a legendary figure, akin to Lann the Clever and Brandon the Builder, and no more likely to have survived to the present day than they have.”
Not having a true book counterpart means that the Night King is an even more unpredictable character than show fans might have guessed, which certainly adds to the drama. Game Of Thrones has always been a show where it felt like anything could happen, but now that it’s forging its own path away from Martin’s work, that idea feels more accurate than ever.