One person often fights or kills on behalf of someone else in A Song of Ice and Fire. For example, think of Tyrion’s two trials by combat. In the first one, Bronn fights for Tyrion against Vardis Egen, who fights for Lysa Arryn. In the second one, Oberyn fights for Tyrion against the Mountain, who fights for Cersei.
I believe we can learn surprisingly important things from this theme of one person fighting on behalf of another.
I. Puppet masters
Tyrion’s two trials by combat have many things in common, but here’s a hidden gem. When Bronn fights Vardis, there’s a “puppeteer” nearby (AGOT, Catelyn VII); and when Oberyn fights the Mountain, Tyrion famously thinks: “We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us” (ASOS, Tyrion X).
We don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out why puppets are mentioned in these two scenes. A puppet is someone controlled by someone else. In these fights, Vardis and the Mountain are symbolically controlled by the people for whom they fight (whereas Bronn and Oberyn choose freely to fight for Tyrion). Vardis is Lysa’s puppet, charging to his death upon her “command” (AGOT, Catelyn VII). She forces him, a “knight,” to attack — just as the puppeteer in that same chapter forces “knights” to attack (AGOT, Catelyn VII).
Who cares? Well, Vardis Egen symbolizes the Others very clearly, as I explained in a previous essay. And Lysa, who controls him, is also connected symbolically with the Others: The Others are “white shadows” with “blue” eyes and “pale” flesh (AGOT, Prologue); and Lysa has “white shoulders,” “blue eyes,” and a “pale” face (AGOT, Catelyn VI)). For good measure, the puppeteer who is being analogized to Lysa has “blue-and-white motley” (AGOT, Catelyn VII).
Here is the key point: Vardis symbolizes the Others, and Lysa is controlling Vardis, so maybe someone is controlling the Others. Indeed, as we’ll see, the characters who kill on someone else’s behalf are consistently linked symbolically with the Others. So when they all kill for the sake of someone else, it means that the Others probably do too. Who is this someone else sending the Others to kill? There’s a major clue that will lead us to the answer, and I’ll show you the clue right now.
II. Hands: Clean or Bloody
Consider the most important killings in the story: Ned Stark’s murder, the Red Wedding, Joffrey’s murder, Jon Arryn’s murder, and Renly’s murder, to take some main examples. All of them are committed by surrogates. Ned Stark is murdered by Ilyn Payne on behalf of Joffrey. Robb Stark is murdered by Roose Bolton on behalf of Walder Frey and especially Tywin Lannister. Joffrey is murdered by Olenna Tyrell (and Dontos Hollard), but Littlefinger masterminds the plot behind the scenes. Similarly, Jon Arryn is murdered by Lysa at Littlefinger’s behest. And of course Renly is murdered by a shadow baby created by Stannis and Melisandre. Even crucial attempted killings involve surrogates: Bran is nearly murdered in his bed by the catspaw assassin (sent by Joffrey, in the books), Tyrion is nearly murdered at the Blackwater by Ser Mandon Moore (sent by Cersei, it seems), and the young and pregnant Daenerys is nearly murdered by an assassin sent by Varys at King Robert’s command.
The importance of this repeated theme is emphasized by the consistent labels that are applied to the surrogates. Ser Mandon is Cersei’s “catspaw” (ASOS, Tyrion I); Dontos Hollard is Littlefinger’s “catspaw” (ASOS, Sansa V); the Mountain — who kills Elia Martell on orders — is Tywin’s “catspaw” (ACOK, Catelyn I); and the assassin sent to kill Bran is repeatedly called the “catspaw” (ACOK, Catelyn VII; ASOS, Jaime I; ASOS, Tyrion VIII).
We know that this concept — delegating a killing — matters to George R.R. Martin because Ned Stark objects to it with his most famous words: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” (AGOT, Bran I). Ned isn’t just talking about executions: He not only says this in the very first chapter but also says it again when he argues against sending an assassin to kill Dany (AGOT, Eddard VIII).
Now contrast Ned’s words with those of Littlefinger, who constantly uses surrogates to carry out his murderous plans: “Clean hands, Sansa. Whatever you do, make certain your hands are clean” (ASOS, Sansa VI). Similarly, when Stannis sends a shadow assassin to murder Renly, he says: “my hands were clean” (ACOK, Davos II). And when Tywin arranges for Robb Stark to be murdered in the Freys’ castle, he makes his own responsibility hard to trace: “The blood is on Walder Frey’s hands, not mine” (ASOS, Tyrion VI).
If the people who send the surrogates claim to have clean hands, then you can guess what the hands of the surrogates look like. The assassin who tries to kill Bran has a “hand, slick with blood” (AGOT, Catelyn III). The Mountain kills Elia while having her “son’s blood and brains still on his hands” (ACOK, Tyrion IV; ASOS, Tyrion IX). Mandon Moore, sent to kill Tyrion, holds out his “hand,” which was “sticky with blood” (ACOK, Tyrion XIV). Vardis Egen, Lysa’s surrogate in the duel, has “blood from elbow to fingers” (AGOT, Catelyn VII).
So the surrogate has bloody hands, whereas whoever sends the surrogate keeps their hands clean. (This obviously doesn’t mean that the senders are morally blameless. On the contrary, they’re even worse for failing to take responsibility for their acts.) As we’re about to see, this clue about the surrogate’s bloody hands tells us who’s sending the Others to kill.
III. Who Sends the Others?
We’re now ready to answer the question I asked above: Vardis symbolizes the Others, and Lysa is controlling Vardis, so maybe someone is controlling the Others. Who is it?
When we first see the Others in the Prologue of A Game of Thrones, only one person is on the scene to observe their duel with Waymar Royce: Waymar’s fellow ranger Will. Will climbs a tree and says a prayer — that is, he calls the gods — and then the Others come while Will silently watches them kill Waymar. As explained in this seminal essay, Will symbolically enters the tree and calls the Others. I’m now going to show why that’s the puppet master: someone who controls the Others from inside a tree.
Let’s ponder the image of entering a tree to call the Others. Who enters a tree? The answer is a greenseer. We are introduced to greensight when Bran enters a weirwood tree via Bloodraven’s cave and then harnesses its supernatural powers. One of those powers is to observe history, but another is to take control of animals (like ravens and the direwolf Summer) and even people, as Bran does with Hodor. These animals and Hodor become surrogates who are controlled by the greenseer (or skinchanger). Nearly every single person in the story who has this power forces the surrogate to fight on their behalf: Robb, Bran, Jon, and Arya with their direwolves; Coldhands with his ravens; Orell with his eagle; Varamyr Sixskins with several animals; and Bran with Hodor.
A greenseer doesn’t just take over the animals, but also the weirwood tree itself. The greenseer “weds” the tree and commandeers its power for his or her own use (ADWD, Bran III). The weirwood is a surrogate. If that’s true, then the weirwoods should have the same symbolism — bloody hands — as the surrogates who kill on command. And they do. The weirwoods’ leaves are repeatedly called “bloody hands” (ADWD, The Turncloak; and ADWD, A Ghost in Winterfell) and “bloodstained hands” (AGOT, Catelyn I). Just as greenseers turn animals into warriors, “the greenseers turned the trees to warriors” (ADWD, The Wayward Bride). A greenseer takes control of the power of the trees (nature’s power), forcing the trees to be the greenseer’s surrogates. The surrogates kill on the greenseer’s behalf in the sense that the the weirwood trees’ power enables the greenseer to send the Others to destroy life.
We know that the Others are surrogates, because Vardis is one of many surrogates who symbolize the Others unambiguously. So if the weirwoods are also surrogates — with both the weirwoods and the Others being used by the same greenseer to kill — then it would make sense for the weirwoods and the Others to be linked symbolically by being described with the same words. And they are. Here are seven words used to describe the Others: “white,” “old,” “pale,” “milk,” “bones,” “shadow,” and “moonlight” (AGOT Prologue). And here are seven words used to describe the weirwoods: “white” (AGOT Catelyn I), “old” (ASOS, Bran IV), “pale” (ASOS, Bran IV), “milk” (ASOS, Bran IV), “bone” (AGOT Catelyn I), “shadow” (ADWD, Prologue), and “moonlight” (ASOS, Bran IV). I believe that George describes the weirwoods and the Others with the same words because both are used as surrogates by a greenseer. The greenseer seizes control of the weirwoods, using the trees’ magic to weaponize the Others.
This is symbolized perfectly by Stannis’s murder of Renly. Stannis is dreaming while Renly is killed: “I was still abed when he died,” and when Devan “tried to wake me … I thrashed and cried out …. It was a dream. I was in my tent when Renly died” (ACOK, Davos II). We know that dreaming symbolizes greenseeing because greenseers are called “dreamers” (ADWD, Bran I) who have “greendreams” (ADWD, Bran I; ADWD, Bran III). So when Stannis dreams, he is symbolically using greenseeing power. While he dreams, a “shadow” kills on his behalf (ACOK, Catelyn IV) — which is important because the Others are called “shadows” (AGOT, Prologue). Dreaming represents greenseeing, and a shadow represents the Others; so what does it symbolize when Stannis, while dreaming, sends a shadow to kill for him? It symbolizes a greenseer sending the Others to kill on the greenseer’s behalf.
Indeed, when we see actual greenseers (or skinchangers) in the story, they use their power to make surrogates kill for them. As noted above, the Starks weaponize their direwolves (Summer, Ghost, Nymeria, and Grey Wind); Coldhands weaponizes his ravens; Orell weaponizes his eagle; Varamyr weaponizes his animals; Bran weaponizes Hodor; and an unknown figure weaponizes the wights.
So greenseers use surrogates to kill for them, just as people like Tywin, Littlefinger, Stannis, Cersei, Lysa, and many others use surrogates to kill for them. If a greenseer is sending the Others as catspaws/surrogates, then we would expect the human catspaws/surrogates to have symbolism that marks them clearly as representing the Others. And they do. In the cases of Vardis Egen and the Mountain, I’ve shown that symbolism in great detail in an earlier essay. Ser Mandon Moore (sent to kill Tyrion at the Blackwater) is not only a knight but also a Kingsguard, both of which are symbols of the Others, as demonstrated by the articles to which this sentence links. The shadow sent to kill Renly, as noted above, clearly represents an Other because the Others are “shadows” (AGOT, Prologue). The catspaw sent to kill Bran is described with the words “pale,” “gaunt,” and “bony“ (AGOT, Catelyn III), just as the Others are described with the words “pale,” “gaunt,” and “hard as old bones“ (AGOT, Prologue). Dontos Hollard, the catspaw used by Littlefinger in the murder of Joffrey, is “pale“ and a “knight” (which is an Other reference). Roose Bolton, who kills Robb Stark on behalf of Tywin, has plentiful Other symbolism including the words, in one sentence alone, “paler,” “milk,” and “spider“ (ASOS, Jaime V). Recall that the Others are associated not only with the word “pale“ but also with the word “milk” (AGOT, Prologue), and that they ride “ice spiders“ (ASOS, Samwell I). Ilyn Payne, the surrogate who kills Ned Stark on Joffrey’s orders, is also described with the words “pale“ and “gaunt,” as well as “silent“ (AGOT, Sansa I), just as the Others are “pale,” “gaunt,” and “silent“ (AGOT, Prologue).
So the surrogates symbolize the Others, which means that the Others themselves must be surrogates. Just like the people who symbolize them, the Others are catspaws who kill on behalf of someone else. Check this out: “there must surely have been another conspirator, lord and master of the rest, the man who set all this in motion from afar, using the others as his catspaws” (Fire & Blood, The Lysene Spring and the End of Regency). I repeat: “the others as his catspaws.” Yes, the Others are catspaws. They kill at the command of someone who is hidden from view and controls them from afar. Being hidden from view and controlling someone from afar is what greenseers do.
IV. Night’s King and Night’s Queen
Who is the greenseer controlling the Others and wights? In the TV show, it’s the Night King, and that’s probably also who it will be in the books. Night’s King sure sounds like a greenseer: “with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will” (ASOS, Bran IV). That’s exactly what Bran, a greenseer, does with Hodor; and it’s probably what Night’s King did with the Others and wights during the Long Night and is now doing again.
But Night’s King wasn’t alone: He “loved” a woman, and they “ruled” together, “Night’s King and his corpse queen” (ASOS, Bran IV). She had “skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars,” and her “skin was cold as ice”; and when Night’s King “gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well” (ASOS, Bran IV).
The TV show never mentions Night’s Queen, but the books are very different in this regard. Not only do they expressly identify her in the passage just quoted, but also they have a lot of symbolism suggesting she played an important role. The most prominent example is Lady Stoneheart, whose creation mirrors the story of Night’s Queen remarkably. Night’s Queen was a “corpse,” then a man “loved” her and died, and then she played some part in forcing previously good men (the Night’s Watch) to do evil on her behalf. Similarly, Lady Stoneheart was a corpse, then a man kissed her and died, and then she forced previously good men (the Brotherhood Without Banners — which Archmaester Emma has linked with the Night’s Watch) to do evil on her behalf. Lady Stoneheart is even associated with the color “white” (ASOS, Epilogue), like the Others.
In addition, the example of Lysa from earlier in this essay evokes Night’s Queen: Lysa is given tons of symbolism linking her to the Others (“white,” “blue,” “pale,” and more), and she’s a puppeteer commanding the Other-figure Vardis Egen to kill for her. Cersei, too, is a puppeteer commanding the Other-figure Gregor Clegane to kill for her when Gregor fights Oberyn. And the symbolism goes beyond Cersei, Lysa, and Lady Stoneheart. There are also literal female puppeteers in the story. Cersei gives one or two of them to Qyburn (AFFC, Cersei V), and Dunk falls for another named Tanselle in The Hedge Knight. As we saw above, puppeteers represent greenseers who control the Others.
So what does this mean? One possibility is that Night’s Queen was just like Night’s King: They worked together as greenseers to use the power of the weirwoods to make Others and wights kill for them. That’s what it sounds like in Old Nan’s story of Night’s King and his corpse queen, and it’s what Lady Stoneheart is like — an enthusiastic, vengeful murderer. Lysa Arryn seems to be in the same ballpark, given her bloodlust toward Tyrion and her murder of Jon Arryn. The same can be said for Cersei’s bloodlust toward Tyrion and her general penchant for murder. On the other hand, both Tanselle and the female puppeteers given to Qyburn were victims rather than perpetrators. And the most famous ancient woman, Nissa Nissa, was also a victim.
Nissa Nissa — who may have become Night’s Queen just as Catelyn became Stoneheart — has tons of symbolism connecting her with the weirwoods. Again, this is consistent with either of our two possibilities. Maybe Nissa Nissa became a greenseer, inhabiting the weirwoods along with Night’s King, and eagerly worked with him in sending Others to kill. Or maybe Nissa Nissa and the weirwoods were both taken over by Night’s King and used for his purposes. Archmaester Emma has plans to write an essay about the symbolism of a woman being rescued when symbolically trapped in a tree, so this would fit the mold of the Last Hero freeing Nissa Nissa, the weirwoods, and nature itself from their enslavement at the hands of Night’s King.
Whatever the details, I believe we can be confident that the Others and wights are being controlled by a greenseer — Night’s King and, in one way or another, Night’s Queen.
When something gets repeated again and again in A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s a reason. One type of reason is to give clues to secrets that GRRM is hiding, and another type of reason is to express a message about life that GRRM wants to convey.
Delegating a killing — making someone do your dirty work for you — gets repeated a lot in the story. I think that GRRM uses this repetition to foreshadow that the Others are being controlled by a greenseer (Night’s King and/or Night’s Queen). Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big discovery now that we’ve seen the TV show, but it was clearly intended to be one of the most important secrets of the books. Unlike on TV, the books have not yet shown Night’s King (or “the Night King”) in the main plot and have only briefly mentioned him as an ancient legend. When GRRM wrote the first five books, he must have planned for it to shock readers when he revealed near the end that Night’s King still exists and can influence present-day events. He gave clues to that secret that could be decoded by the sort of analysis in this essay. Such analysis suggests that in the books, we can expect that Night’s King will probably be a greenseer hidden within the astral plane of the weirwood network, pulling the puppet strings of the Others and wights. GRRM thus repeats the act of delegating a killing so as to provide clues to the secret that a greenseer controls the Others.
Another reason that GRRM repeats the act of delegating a killing is to express some of the main themes of the story — that is, to make statements about life that he wants the story to impart. So GRRM makes Ned Stark, a generally positive character, oppose delegated killings: Ned says that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. And GRRM makes Tywin Lannister, a generally negative character, support delegated killings: Tywin gloats that the Red Wedding kept his hands clean.
There are several reasons that GRRM may be depicting delegated killings negatively. First, delegated killings are deceitful. Ned takes responsibility for his acts, whereas Tywin and others like Littlefinger evade responsibility by foisting blame onto their surrogates. This warps how history is remembered — away from the truth and toward a narrative that serves the powerful and unscrupulous — and that is something GRRM clearly disfavors. Second, delegated killings are a way for the powerful to exploit the powerless, as shown most notably when smallfolk die in the wars waged by the great lords. War is the ultimate delegated killing on a mass scale, and GRRM is a pacifist who opposes war. Third, to delegate a killing is to turn a person (the surrogate who kills) into a weapon and thereby dehumanize that person. The slavemasters do this to the Unsullied, among other examples, and it is of course depicted as a morally abhorrent act. Fourth, delegated killings desensitize powerful people to violence. Ned suggests that if you can’t bear to look into a man’s eyes and hear his last words, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die. But those who use surrogates to kill don’t need to look at or listen to the victim, which removes a barrier to violence and increases the chance of injustice. All of these points and more are probably the sort of ideas GRRM has in mind when he uses the repeated theme of delegated killings to express his views about violence, justice, exploitation, and power.
For me, the main purpose of analyzing these books is to understand why GRRM wrote what he did. If you’ve ever wondered why so many killings in the story are committed by one person acting on behalf of another, this essay has tried to provide some answers.