Game of Thrones is a fantastic show, and part of the reason for that is its complexity. The characters have rich backgrounds, the families have long histories, and the conflicts are the result of events that are never shown onscreen. It’s more interesting than simple Good Guy Versus Bad Guy fantasy, but it can sometimes be difficult to follow. Game of Thrones Explained is here to help. Whether you’re a viewer wanting more detail than is provided by character conversations, a fan of the books wanting to brush up on the story as you watch the show, or someone just trying to keep the names straight, this recurring column will explore families, events, locations, and characters. It may reveal information that hasn’t yet been discussed on the show, but it won’t spoil plot twists or secrets.
House Stark may come from a cold and unforgiving place, but Winterfell is cozy compared to the Wall and the lands beyond it. Jon Snow and his friend Sam Tarly are new members of the Night’s Watch, the organization that defends the realm in the far north, but what is the Night’s Watch, and who does it defend against?
The Night’s Watch
Ever since Brandon the Builder created the 300-mile long Wall thousands of years ago, there has been need for recruits to man its defenses and scout the dangers on the other side. Once, this group was mighty and respectable, controlling 19 castles along the Wall and training as a formidable army. The Night’s Watch was even strong enough to rebel once, fighting the Starks under the banner of the Lord Commander known as the Night’s King. Mostly, of course, they stayed out of politics and focused on their duty, but over time northern dangers have gotten less attention, and the Watch has shrunk. Now they control only three castles (Castle Black, the Shadow Tower, and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea), and must recruit untrained men and criminals to man them. Their only consistent income is from the Gift, a stretch of land to the south of the Wall where the people pay taxes to the Watch, but the population has declined significantly. Still, the Watch is essential, as wildlings continue to attempt raids on southern lands, and stranger creatures seem to be stirring.
Night’s Watch Structure
The Watch is run like a military organization, and its rules are stricter than most. The men cannot own any land, marry, or father children (although some undoubtedly do with the prostitutes who live in small towns just to the south of the Wall). Trainees can leave before taking their vows, but after the vows any man who tries to leave is branded a traitor. Each man has hard duties and must deal with cold and isolation, but in exchange he gets a new life; previous crimes are forgiven and unwanted ties are forgotten. The Lord Commander has final authority, but delegates to a number of officers within three main institutions: the rangers (those who face the dangers of scouting), the builders (those who maintain the Wall and craft equipment), and the stewards (those responsible for administration and support).
Jeor Mormont: The 997th to bear the title of Lord Commander, Mormont is also known as the Old Bear. He resides in Castle Black. He is stern, fair, and dedicated to his duties.
Maester Aemon: The ancient and blind maester of Castle Black, responsible for the ravens and many matters of lore.
Benjen Stark: First Ranger of the Night’s Watch, Benjen has led many excursions into the far north. Recently, his riderless horse arrived in Castle Black, although his nephew Jon Snow holds out hope he is alive.
Ser Alliser Thorne: The tough master-at-arms at Castle Black, who trains the recruits in swordfighting and hopes to make them tough enough to survive even if that means humiliation and pain.
Jon Snow: Bastard son of Ned Stark and a new member of the stewards. He wanted to be a ranger, but his friend Sam Tarly has suggested that stewardship might mean he is being groomed for command.
Samwell Tarly: Son of Lord Randyll Tarly of the Reach, he was not tough enough for his father’s acceptance, and was forced to go to the North.
Yoren: A brother of the Watch who is responsible for traveling the Seven Kingdoms finding recruits.
The wildlings, like House Stark, descend from the First Men and follow the Old Gods, but their culture has diverged for millenia. There is no political unity among the wildlings, who mostly live in isolated clans. Some maintain stable mountain homes while others roam the tundra or fish the icy bays. Some speak the Common Tongue while others have their own languages. Some are raiders while others tend to keep to themselves. Still, they often feel some kinship for each other, referring to themselves as the Free Folk, and once in a while a strong leader will call himself King-Beyond-the-Wall and assemble a host that can threaten the realm. There are tales of these hosts even including giants riding great woolly mammoths. Mostly, though, the biggest danger from the wildlings is small raiding parties that can bypass the Wall and attack villages to the south. Not all wildlings are hostile to the Watch, and a few black brothers were orphaned wildlings taken in by the order. Female wildlings have more independence than women in much of Westeros, and they can often be found even among the warrior classes.
The only wildlings we have seen much of so far is Osha, who was captured by Robb and Theon as she and her companions attempted to kidnap Bran Stark. She has mentioned Mance Rayder, a powerful wildling leader, and told Maester Luwin that there are dangers stirring beyond the Wall.
The White Walkers
According to legend, the Wall was originally built because of the Long Night, a devastating war in which strange humanoid ice creatures descended onto human realms riding ice spiders and resurrecting the dead to use as soldiers. These were the Others, also called the White Walkers. It has been thousands of years since they have been a threat, however, and if they still exist they live far north of even the homes of most wildlings. Recently, however, a Night’s Watch deserter was captured, and he babbled about seeing strange men of ice. He was executed for his treason by Ned Stark, however, and his words were considered to be mad or desperate.