To begin, it would seem to be important to understand the larger story of A Song of Ice and Fire (and subsequently the Game of Thrones television show) in the context of its higher meaning, and the intertwining and unification of its many storylines. Further, it would make sense to believe George RR Martin feels this way as well. He has invested incredible energy and thought into his life’s work, slowly cultivating the varying, sometimes meandering storylines, and it would be sensible to presume he has a multitude of predetermined broad strokes, fully fleshed arcs planned out, and ultimately these will be reconciled to give a unity and purpose to the greater story. This means the beginning must be intimately connected to the end, and all the forces acting in the beginning be understood as contributing to all contexts of the story, including the conclusion.
In the next few sections, the stage for this theory will be set, as there are background aspects that need to be understood and cited to see the landscape of what may be happening.
The Tourney at Harrenhal
When thinking of beginnings circling back to ends, we must remember the true beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire does not take place in the books. It happened fifteen years before the events at the beginning of A Game of Thrones. The true beginning is the event most of the main characters reflect back on, and the event that ultimately triggered Robert’s Rebellion, and the fall of the Targaryen dynasty—The Tourney at Harrenhal.
Certainly, there is a lot to say about the Tourney at Harrenhal, and everything will not be touched here. Practically every major character in the series was there, and/or has some intimate connection to the events that transpired. In understanding the larger theory here, however, it is necessary to expound on certain details, including highly probable speculation and theories already existing within and about the tournament.
Everyone who was anyone was at the Tournament at Harrenhal—with the exception of Tywin Lannister, who was feuding with King Aerys. All these participants and spectators were drawn to the sheer scale of the event, spreading over many days and offering grand prizes. The expense was quite great, and speculated to be well beyond the means of the tournament’s host, Lord Whent. And indeed, many (in the story) wondered if Rhaegar Targaryen and/or perhaps Tywin Lannister funded the tournament for political reasons—so all the great lords would be gathered in one place, and could discuss the passive removal of Aerys from the throne through Great Council. There is much speculation here, but such speculation—by both characters and redditors—is fueled or accompanied by Rhaegar’s positive, noble intentions for the Seven Kingdoms.
During the tournament, various things happened, but one of the notable series of events involves the mysterious Knight of the Laughing Tree. The emergence of this mystery knight at the tournament begins with the harassment of a crannogman named Howland Reed at the hands of three squires for other knights in the event. They mocked and beat him, until Lyanna Stark, who was in attendance at Harrenhal with her brothers, observed this and stepped in. She helped fight the squires off, and later reports this to her brothers. Lyanna tended Howland Reed’s wounds, and he stayed with the Starks at the event. It was suggested that the crannogman borrow armor and weapons to avenge his honor during the tourney, but he did not want to shame himself or his people. Later, the mysterious Knight of the Laughing Tree emerged, with mismatched armor, and a loud, booming voice, with a laughing weirwood tree painted on the breastplate. This mystery knight unseated the knights of the mocking squires, and demanded they teach their squires honor, effectively calling them out for their poor behavior, and avenging Howland Reed.
During this, mad King Aerys was convinced the painted weirwood tree was laughing at him, and that the Knight of the Laughing Tree was his enemy. He was determined their identity be revealed, and commanded his own knights to fight and unmask him. By the next day, however, the mystery knight was gone. Aerys, angered by this, sent his men, including Prince Rhaegar, to apprehend the knight, but he could not be found.
A popular theory is that Rhaegar did indeed apprehend and unmask the Knight of the Laughing Tree—and upon unmasking discovered none other than Lyanna Stark.
Rhaegar would go on to win the overall tournament, and upon winning, he presented his favor—a crown of winter roses—not to his wife, but instead to Lyanna Stark, and declared her the Queen of Love and Beauty. This single event, in addition to her ‘abduction,’ is what would lead to Robert’s Rebellion (since Robert and Lyanna were betrothed). Of course, this event is not fully understood by anyone who observed it that day (except maybe ancient greenseers witnessing the events).
Rhaegar did not declare Lyanna the Queen of Love and Beauty out of lust, or some random impulse. He fell in love with her when he unmasked her as the Knight of the Laughing Tree. He respected her courage, her honor, her strength, and her skill. He loved her in a much more meaningful and substantial way than he is often given credit for, and Lyanna loved him as well (she was brought to tears by his singing at the tournament before these events).
When Rhaegar won the Tourney at Harrenhal, he was the pinnacle of his popularity and success. He was loved and respected by all. He was noble, intelligent, talented, beautiful, kind, and the definition of a Prince. When he presented his favor to Lyanna, “the smiles turned to frowns,” because no one understood or could know the true intent of his act (once again, except perhaps ancient greenseers witnessing the events). But in reality his act was more than one of love. Perhaps more importantly, he was mirroring and quietly acknowledging the honor of Lyanna, and the respect he had for her. In reality, he was an even better man and prince than most already believed.
Weirwood Trees & Dragonglass
The Children of the Forest are known for their close association with weirwood trees and obsidian, or dragonglass, in addition to their strong ties with the paranormal aspects of A Song of Ice and Fire. Beyond this, it has been established in the books and in the television show that weirwood trees and their associated network serve as a type of conduit to see past, current, and possibly future events, and wargs/greenseers who are powerful enough can see through and beyond the weirwood trees. The greenseers were the leaders of the Children of the Forest, and used these powers to great effect, and may have even been the proverbial Old Gods themselves. In the events of the books and in the show, the only remaining greenseers are Brynden Rivers (The Three-Eyed Raven) and Brandon Stark (The New Three-Eyed Raven). Though, we do meet other wargs in the series, including Varamyr Sixskins, who can warg into many animals, and even attempts to warg into a woman.
Being able to warg into an animal(s) could be thought of as warging 1.0, and greensight might be thought of as warging 2.0. Typical wargs can go into the mind of an animal(s) in real time, whereas fully realized greenseers can go into pretty much anything, anytime. We know either can be dangerous, however, as we have seen the downsides of this with Varamyr Sixskins trying to inhabit the mind of another woman, which drives her quite insane. We also have Brynden Rivers warning Brandon not to linger too long in the sea of the past, lest he drown there. And, of course, we have the infamous Hodor scenario, where Brandon directly influences the past, and all events (saying exclusively Hodor) throughout Hodor’s life. It has been established warging/greensight can be utilized not only for seeing, and influencing other events, but also in transferring consciousness.
If weirwood trees represent the northern, cold magic aspect of these strange powers, then obsidian/dragonglass would certainly be the fire magic corollary. It is referenced how the Valyrians used glass candles (dragonglass devices) to communicate with each other over vast distances, and even enter the dreams and thoughts of others. In the books, Daenerys experiences a vision with Quaithe where glass candles are described as burning, and Xaro Xhoan Daxos communicates a similar message to her as well. Why are glass candles burning now? What has changed to make them burn? Are these comments regarding glass candles meant to be generic, or are they meant to quietly herald the burning of a particular glass candle?
Additionally, when Sam is speaking with Marwyn about the utility of glass candles in AFFC.
“The sorcerers of the Freehold could see across mountains, seas, and deserts with one of these glass candles. They could enter a man’s dreams and give him visions, and speak to one another half a world apart, seated before their candles. Do you think that might be useful, Slayer?”
Sam says,“We would have no more need of ravens.”
“Only after battles,” The archmaester peeled a sourleaf off a bale, shoved it in his mouth, and began to chew it.
Though this exchange is cryptic, with Marwyn’s strange reference to battles, it is clear glass candles have similar powers (communication, consciousness transfer) to weirwood trees, and they will likely be relevant in the broader story.
The Motivation of the Children of the Forest
In the Game of Thrones television show, we see Bran and the Three-Eyed-Raven in a vision showing the presumptive creation of the Night King (Season 6, Episode 5 – The Door). This vision sequence is rather sudden, without context, and meant to be taken at face value in every way. We see a man (the actor who plays the Night King) tied to a weirwood tree, and we see a group of Children of the Forest staring at him, before promptly impaling him with a shard of dragonglass. His eyes then turn blue. Bran falls out of this vision, and this exchange occurs with the Child of the Forest with him in the cave. Below is literally the language from the script for this scene in the episode.
*LEAF is watching BRAN. BRAN releases the root of the tree and wakes up from his vision.
*BRAN: It was you. You made the White Walkers.
*LEAF: We were at war. We were being slaughtered. Our sacred trees cut down. We needed to defend ourselves.
*BRAN: From whom?
*LEAF: From you. From men.
*LEAF exits. BRAN and the THREE-EYED RAVEN stare at each other.
This is all we are given concerning the creation of the Night King, and we are meant to take what we see and hear entirely at face value—that the Children of the Forest created the white walkers as a weapon against men. In reality, however, there is no context to this scene, and we really do not know the intentions behind their actions.
Historically, the Children of the Forest have employed passive, preventative measures to protect themselves, and are known for their deep, peaceful connection with the earth. When the First Men came to Westeros by crossing the land bridge once connecting Westeros to Essos, the Children tried to stop them by shattering and destroying this land bridge, creating the Narrow Sea. Later, the Children flooded the Neck (a thinner area on the continent of Westeros) in order to try to prevent the northern advancement of men. These attempts to intervene with the First Men invasion of their land are passive, preventative, and in alignment with the peaceful style of the Children of the Forest.
Going back to the Night King/White Walker creation scene from the television show, we are expected to believe the Children of the Forest essentially created an army of ice zombies as a weapon of mass destruction to combat men. But, this concept is counterintuitive to the style and basic MO of the Children of the Forest, which has been established to be passive, preventative, and rooted in unity. It is reasonable that the true, underlying spirit of what we are witnessing in this scene will turn out to follow this same pattern, and the intent likely geared toward the passive, preventative, and healing—not destructive.
In the same way that the Children of the Forest tried to passively, preventatively intervene with the landscape of Westeros to discourage the advancement and onslaught of men, I believe we are witnessing something similar in this scene. When they realize Men are too numerous and strong, they will no longer seek geographic protection, but instead intend to change Men themselves, and effectively heal them of their barbarity. Using their powers of greensight—they scour their visions throughout time, searching for the best of us, searching for the best leader of men they can find. They discover Rhaegar Targaryen.
The End of Rhaegar & the Beginning of the Night King
We are told repeatedly about the mythic confrontation of Robert and Rhaegar in the shallows of the Trident River. There, in the frenzy of single combat, Rhaegar had his chest smashed in by Robert’s war hammer, and perished. Rhaegar’s elaborate breastplate—comprised of rubies arranged into the three-headed dragon of the Targaryen sigil—was splintered, and the rubies scattered throughout the waters, ever after named the Ruby Ford. We have also found out how unreliable these accounts can be, and I believe we will discover there was more to this confrontation than the folklore/Baratheon propaganda reveal.
The glorious, single blow, chest-smashing death of Rhaegar Targaryen—the enemy prince, son of the Mad King, abductor and rapist of Lyanna Stark—is the type of lore and propaganda one might expect to emerge from the winner of a dynasty shifting battle. It may be revealed, however, that the landmark blow Robert landed on Rhaegar did not immediately kill him, and I believe it to be more likely that this infamous blow merely cracked/penetrated Rhaegar’s armor (which may have contained dragonglass in the ornamentation?), and following this they frantically wrestled hand-to-hand in the shallow water. In desperation, the killing blow from Robert likely came from what we know as the Catspaw dagger—which he either pulled from his own side, or probably from the side of Rhaegar himself—and plunged it into his heart, through the broken breastplate. This frantic, haphazard killing lacks the romanticism of a single blow from a hammer.
The ancient greenseers of the Children of the Forest, having seen in Rhaegar Targaryen everything they wish the First Men possessed—either by chance, or perhaps their design—follow Rhaegar to his fate on the Trident that day. And in Rhaegar’s moment of death at the Trident, they are able to effectively save his mind within the core of a glass candle in the ancient past, only to wake again in the body of another. The dragonglass we see being plunged into the man tied to the weirwood tree in the past, is actually a glass candle holding the mind of Rhaegar Targaryen.
The sheer act of Rhaegar’s death—an object being plunged into the chest—directly parallels the creation of the Night King—with the dragonglass/glass candle being plunged into the man tied to the weirwood tree. It may be this parallel in death with related means which allowed for Rhaegar’s mind to be transferred. The Catspaw dagger is Valyrian Steel, with a dragonbone hilt, but in the show the dagger is presented as Valyrian steel with dragonglass associated with the hilt. Indeed, an obvious picture of the dagger can be seen in the book Sam is reading about dragonglass (Season 7, Episode 1 – Dragonstone). The text from the page in that book reads:
The Valyrians were familiar with dragonglass long before they came to Westeros. They called it "zīrtys perzys" which translated to “frozen fire” in Valyrian and eastern tales tell of how their dragons would thaw the stone with dragonflame until it became molten and malleable. The Valyrians then used it to build their strange monuments and building without seams and joints of our modern castles. When Aegon the conqueror forged his Seven Kingdoms, he and his descendants would often decorate their blades with dragonglass feeling a kinship with the stone. The royal fashion for dragonglass ornamentation soon spread throughout the Seven Kingdoms to those wealthy enough to afford it. Hilts and pommels were and are the most common decoration for dragonglass if too brittle to make a useful crossguard. Indeed, its very brittleness is what relegates it to the great houses and the most successful merchants.
In season 7 the Catspaw dagger featured heavily. Not only was it the notorious dagger utilized in the assignation attempt on Bran Stark himself, effectively serving as the device which set off many events within the main story of the first book/season, but it has narrative significance spanning many seasons. Its resurgence within the story, and the heavy highlights—presence within the dragonglass book, presentation to Bran by Petyr Baelish, gifting from Bran to Arya—are not done frivolously, and the dagger is being set up for future narrative significance. I believe we will find out the dagger was used to kill Rhaegar Targaryen, and I also believe we will find out its properties allowed the Children of the Forest to save his mind and bring him to the past to be a leader of the First Men.
The individual chosen is likely already an ancient leader of the First Men. He may have been abducted. He may have come with the Children willingly. In any event, the individual we see tied to the weirwood tree is likely someone of importance and influence, probably a King or Prince of the First Men—probably a Stark ancestor. The Children of the Forest selected this person to house the mind of Rhaegar Targaryen, either to imbue him with traits of Rhaegar, or to outwardly embody Rhaegar himself. They were trying to create a better leader for men, to herald a change in the aggressive, destructive mindset the First Men had embraced up to this point. Rhaegar may have indeed been The Prince That Was Promised, except he was a promised prince to the First Men in the ancient past.
Obviously, something went terribly wrong, and after the Night King was created, presumptively the Long Night occurs, in which the Children of the Forest are forced to fight with the First Men to defeat the White Walkers, etc.
Ultimately, even if the nuances of these events are not mapped out with exacting accuracy, there are far too many parallels between the death of Rhaegar and the creation of the Night King for them to be unrelated. Though, I believe the big picture suggests the Night King is Rhaegar himself, or has his mind in some meaningful way via the glass candle in his chest.
Beyond everything discussed above, there are other contextual or metaphoric suggestions of parallels between the death of Rhaegar Targaryen and the creation of the Night King.
- The new prophecy revealed in the recently published, “Fire and Blood, page 497,” overtly suggests a connection between Rhaegar and the Night King.
- ‘And talk was heard in camp of a prophecy of ancient days that said, "When the Hammer shall fall upon the dragon, a new king shall arise, and none shall stand before him."’
- Of course, in the context of the text, this prophecy is presented as history regarding a figure known as Hugh the Hammer during the early days of Targaryen rule in Westeros, but the striking imagery between Robert and Rhaegar, and the subsequent rise of a ‘new king’ none shall stand before is in complete alignment with this theory.
- In the show, we see the Night King walk through fire multiple times. In the show, only Daenerys/Targaryens are implied to have this sort of immunity/resistance to fire.
- The Night King is literally riding a dragon. In the mythos of GRRM, only dragonlords of Valyria—or people descended from them—are ever described as riding dragons.
- The scattered rubies of the sigil also serve as a metaphor for transformation. The Rhaegar Targaryen we know has disappeared, scattered into the rivers of time, and what survives in the past is not what we recognize.
Review of Basic Background Points & Proposed Theory
- Rhaegar Targaryen was a quintessential prince. He was noble, intelligent, talented, beautiful and kind. He was adored and respected by all. In many ways, he represented the best of us.
- Weirwood trees and dragonglass (glass candles) have similar functionalities. They allow proficient users to see events across time, and enter the thoughts and dreams of others, which can include consciousness transfer.
- The Children of the Forest have been historically passive, employing largely preemptive, non-aggressive means to protect themselves and their interests (i.e. shattering the Arm of Dorne, flooding the Neck), and the creation of a ruthless army of ice zombies is not fundamentally their style or MO.
- When the aforementioned passive means of stopping the First Men failed, they decided to attempt to change/improve the First Men themselves—beginning with giving them a better leader, perhaps a promised prince.
- The Children of the Forest scoured their visions across time searching for the best of us, and they found Rhaegar Targaryen, a perfect prince and an ideal leader of men.
- Either by chance, or by design, they followed Rhaegar to his death at the Trident, and when he died (in a manner which tremendously parallels the creation of the Night King, and likely involving the infamous Catspaw dagger), they saved his mind via a glass candle in the ancient past.
- They procured a leader of the First Men (likely an ancient Stark), and implanted this glass candle into him, hoping to imbue the best of Rhaegar, or outwardly embody Rhaegar himself, in this individual.
- When the Children of the Forest created what would become the Night King, they were actually attempting to give the First Men a better leader (perhaps a promised prince), by transferring the consciousness of the best person across time they could find into a contemporary leader of First Men.
- Something went horribly wrong, and the Night King is a crazed combination of two minds—the ancient Stark, and Rhaegar Targaryen—both alive in the same body.
Bonus and Beyond the Theory: What Does the Night King Want?
Something obviously went horribly and unpredictably wrong with the Children’s plan to give the First Men a better leader, and the motivations for the Night King—even with this theory, are not straightforward to identify. Though, I believe the key to understanding will ultimately be found in a frequently stated adage in the books and in the show—only death can pay for life. I am currently writing a follow-up, which details a theory I have on the intentions of the Night King.