As much as GRRM likes to draw on traditional high fantasy tropes, A Song of Ice and Fire is very much a sword-and-sorcery world, akin to something written by Robert E Howard. Howard himself was a contemporary and collaborator with H.P. Lovecraft himself, the father of eldritch weirdness. A lot of people have pointed out the many Lovecraftian elements to the world of ice and fire – from Leng to the Five Forts to Asshai to Toad Isle to the Seastone Chair to Battle Isle to the mazemakers to the squishers.
But there’s one big element that needs to be addressed: the Others.
One common theory is that the Others are, essentially “misunderstood snow elves.” They’re a race whose goals and aims run contrary to human life…but they aren’t necessarily evil. This is a popular theory. Some think there’ll be a pact with the Others, that humans need to resolve their Other-ing of a different race. That to end with a big battle would be disingenuous to the messages of ASOIAF, about hard peace etc.
I disagree. And I promise I’ll explain! But first,
At The Mountains of Madness
One of H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous stories is “At the Mountains of Madness,” a massive novella about an Antarctic expedition. In short (spoilers for AtMoM, I guess?):
An expedition goes to explore the interior of Antarctica, but comes across a massive, heretofore-unknown mountains range. Part of the party disappears while investigating the mountains, and two surviving scientists fly in to see what happened to their disappeared comrades. Long story short, the expedition unearthed hibernating Elder Things, which awoke and killed the scientists in self-defense and fled over the mountains into an ancient city. Our two protagonists descend into the ruined city and learn the history of the Elder Things, in particular how the Elder Things created a race of beings called “shoggoths” to be their servants. The shoggoths became more and more sentient over time, although they were still little better than beasts. The shoggoths fought back against the Elder Things, and they fought hard – they were built to be beasts of incredible burden. Well, of course our heroes find a shoggoth living in the city, and flee from it, as it gibbers in a queer mockery of the speech of the Elder Things. In the end, they fly out of the eons-aged city in their little two-seater plane. One of the men looks back towards an even bigger mountain range where, according to Elder Thing legend, something even worse lived. And the man sees that thing.
It’s a story of escalating horror and tension – you’ll never find scarier penguins in literature, I promise you. It’s also widely regarded as one of Lovecraft’s finest works, and crosses all sorts of metatextual boundaries, referencing his own stories, his future stories, and even mentioning the Hyperborean world of Robert E. Howard’s CONAN. As much as “The Call of Cthulhu” is the most famous Lovecraft story, “At The Mountains of Madness” might well be his most quintessential.
A Bunch of Quotes
While I know we can’t take show canon as book canon, I do believe that the broad strokes of the origin of the Others will be pretty much the same – the Children of the Forest somehow created them, and then somehow lost control of them.
Gee, that sounds familiar!
Here’s a quote from At the Mountains of Madness about the shoggoths:
Formless protoplasm able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes – viscous agglutinations of bubbling cells – rubbery fifteen-foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile – slaves of suggestion, builders of cities – more and more sullen, more and more intelligent, more and more amphibious, more and more imitative – Great God! What madness made even those blasphemous Old Ones willing to use and to carve such things?
and another, for good measure:
And at last we remembered that the daemoniac shoggoths – given life, thought, and plastic organ patterns solely by the Old Ones, and having no language save that which the dot-groups expressed – had likewise no voice save the imitated accents of their bygone masters.
Oh, and the shoggoth that chases our plucky heroes? Icy pale mist bespeaks its presence.
Now let’s look at some quotes from GRRM (and the books!) about the Others:
The Others are not dead. They are strange, beautiful…think, oh…the Sidhe made of ice, something like that…a different sort of life…inhuman, elegant, dangerous.
Regarding their history:
“(We’ll learn more about their) history, certainly, but I don’t know about culture,” he said. “I don’t know if they have a culture.”
And, of course, the 1993 letter laying out the outline for his proposed fantasy trilogy:
The greatest danger of all, however, comes from the north, from the icy wastes beyond the Wall, where half-forgotten demons out of legend, the inhuman others, raise cold legions of the undead and the neverborn and prepare to ride down on the winds of winter to extinguish everything that we would call “life.”
What Does It All Mean?
I think I’ve laid out all the implications fairly well, but there’s a little more to the Others than just beasts of burden like the shoggoths. After all, according to GRRM, “The Others can do things with ice that we can’t imagine, and make substances of it.” And in the show (again, I know, show-canon ain’t book-canon – but like I said, in broad strokes this is probably similar) – the Children of the Forest created the Others to fight Men. For the sake of completeness, I’ve got two polished theories for you right here – one that’s a little wild, and one that I feel confident is close to the truth.
First, the easy one:
The Children of the Forest created the Others during their long battle with the First Men – or perhaps created them after they made the Pact on the Isle of Faces, plotting revenge against the First Men. They created the Others specifically to be boogeymen. That is, where Lovecraft’s shoggoths were beasts of burden, the Others are hand-crafted banshees, ghouls, ghosts, snarks, grumkins. They gave them great power over ice, cold mists to shroud them, and – greatest of all gifts – the ability to skinchange and control dead bodies. This ultimate boogeymen of Man rose above their masters, however, and the Children found themselves faced with a foe of their own making. Together with the First Men, they fought against the Others, turning them back and driving them into the uttermost north, where – like in Lovecraft’s Antarctica – the Others slept for unknown generations.
Okay, now the wild one:
The Children of the Forest have nothing to do with it. The Others were created by a primeval race that existed long before the Children of the Forest, the same primeval race that built Asshai, that worked with the oily black stone of Moat Cailin, Battle Isle, and Toad Isle, that left the Seastone Chair on the Iron Islands. That race since died out, long-vanished from the earth, but their shoggoths remained – the Others, alone in their icy home, forever working to create new masterpieces, cities, weapons. The Others come south when their vicious alien logic suggests it; there is no rhyme or reason to their attack, at least none that any of the races of Westeros and Essos could ever understand. Their purpose is beyond reckoning.
Either way, I think it is true that the Others are, like the “daemoniac shoggoths,” ultimately imitative, reflections of something that created them. I believe that either the Children created them (and then the Others are reflections of the Man’s greatest fears, used against him like weapons) OR that some eldritch race created them (and then the Others are reflections of some monstrous, unknown race which has vanished near-entirely from the earth).
Either way – the Others will not be reasoned with. There will be no pacts. They will leech humanity dry as best they can – taking newborn sons as they are offered, for instance. They are the shoggoths, the creations that have turned against not only their masters but against all the world. They are boogeymen made to be boogeymen, and operate on boogeyman logic. They kill, toy with, and reanimate humans because they were made to kill, toy with, and reanimate humans.
You might be thinking “boy, that makes A Dream of Spring sound pretty straightforward. Others are bad, kill the Others. What’s so hard about that? That doesn’t seem very GRRMy.” Well, as usual, I’ll stand on the shoulder of a giant (PoorQuentyn in this case) for my good ideas. What will make ADOS powerful is that the heroes will have to choose to dream of spring. They will have to decide that the world is worth saving, and that they believe so much in that idea that they will fight against eldritch horrors and death itself. And as ASOIAF has shown us, that isn’t an easy choice. When you want to know what A Dream of Spring is going to look like, read Brienne’s second-to-last chapter in AFFC, when the Bloody Mummers come threatening orphans:
Seven , Brienne thought again, despairing. She had no chance against seven, she knew. No chance, and no choice.
The Others are the Bloody Mummers to the nth degree. The Others are monsters. They outnumber us, their legions of dead outnumber us, and frankly there’s not much chance of victory. They bring the cold with them, they can do things with ice, every human they kill is another soldier in their unending army. That’s not an easy choice to make, fighting the Others. But GRRM shows us in the prologue to AGOT that a person can make that choice:
Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. Yet in that moment, Will thought, he was a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch.
You don’t have to be some sort of paragon of justice. You just have to face winter – face winter, and dream of spring.
What We Talk About When We Talk About the Deep Ones – A fantastic, always-relevant essay by Sean T. Collins about the Sword & Sorcery aspect of ASOIAF.
The full text of At the Mountains of Madness – Give it a read if you have the chance. It’s a heck of a novella, and I’d recommend finding a print copy to sink into, but it really is a high-water-mark of Lovecraft’s fiction.
A great Westeros.org thread by LordStoneheart – This thread contains a number of GRRM quotes on the Others, evil, and the endgame of ASOIAF.